The Best Defense

Rebecca's War Dog of the Week: Wilbur's adventures in Afghanistan (and news of note)

By Rebecca Frankel

Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent

I came across a series of photos of Wilbur, a U.S. Marine Special Operations dog, taken over the last few weeks in Afghanistan by Marine Corps photographer Sgt. Pete Thibodeau. The collection of images follows Wilbur through Helmand Province -- working security, encountering livestock, playing fetch in front of an idle Humvee, and watching a group of children, his ears pricked in earnest attention.

Today's post title (and the use of the word "adventures") isn't intended to be flippant -- Wilbur is a Special Ops dog, which means his job is especially taxing and dangerous. But Thibodeau's photos show the non-violent side of combat-zone living from Wilbur's point of view with its own kind of wonder and whimsy -- a view worth seeing.

More photos of Wilbur are after the fold but first a couple of War-Dog Announcements:

60 Minutes will be airing a segment on MWDs this Sunday, April 21, called "Sniffing Out Bombs." The show sent a correspondent out to Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, home to the nation's premier pre-deployment course run by the USMC and Gunnery Sgt. Kristopher Reed Knight and his crew of experienced handlers. (I spent two weeks there last year.) Longtime readers of this column are likely to see the faces of those written about here on the CBS news show this week.

For DC locals (and supporters near and far): The Third Annual Annapolis 5K Run & Dog Walk is raising funds for America's VetDogs -- an organization that "provides service and assistance dogs, free of charge, to disabled veterans." The run will kick off at 9 am this Sunday at Quiet Waters Park in Annapolis, Maryland. Looks like early registration has closed but walk-ups are welcome, as are dogs -- leashed, of course. 

Wilbur vs. cow:


Wilbur watches children after Afghan National Army special forces escorted a district governor to a school on April 15:


Wilbur receives his "favorite toy" as a reward for a job well done after "successfully sweeping a build site for an Afghan Local Police checkpoint":


Wilbur tries on his handler's gear after a mission:


Hat tip to TR for sending the opening photo and an accompanying and particularly apt caption, "Nothing like feeling safe in a war zone."

Rebecca Frankel is away from her FP desk, working on a book about dogs and war.

U.S. Marine Corps Photo by Sgt. Pete Thibodeau/Released

The Best Defense

Lt. Gen. Caldwell: What the Army needs now, most of all, is to develop leaders

By Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, U.S. Army

Best Defense guest columnist

I recently had the opportunity to speak to approximately 1,400 majors attending the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Ninety-eight percent of the U.S. Army majors at CGSC are combat veterans. Over 80 percent have more than one combat deployment, and nearly 40 percent have deployed three or more times.

But for all the hardships they've endured over the past decade, the next few years will be still be challenging, but in a different way. Our active-duty Army will trim nearly 70,000 soldiers from its ranks, with over 24,000 being involuntarily separated. Those who make up our formations may become frustrated as training resources dwindle, and as soldiers spend more time at stateside bases performing duties that just a few years ago none of them would have even had time to do, like picking up trash and mowing the grass.

However, this cycle is nothing new. I first experienced it 37 years ago, as a second lieutenant fresh from West Point. In 1976, I joined an Army which had just emerged from a painful war in Vietnam, and was beginning to transform from a large conscript force of nearly 1.5 million soldiers to a smaller, volunteer Army roughly half that size. Many predicted that the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) would be an absolute failure; yet, by the time I was a major, our volunteer Army had won one of the most overwhelming victories in military history.

What made the difference? We did have great weapons, but our ultimate success was the result of the quality of our men and women in uniform. After Vietnam, we made leader development our top priority, investing in our people, and in their education and training.

In 1974 only 61 percent of recruits had a high school diploma. During the latter years of the draft -- as well as the early years of the AVF -- crime, drug use, and racial tensions ran high. To fix the force, we had to concentrate on recruiting and retaining quality people. We instituted a zero-tolerance policy towards drugs, eliminating nearly a division's worth of soldiers for substance abuse in the early 1980s. Instead of relying on draftees -- committed only to a few years of service -- we developed a skilled, professional Army. To grow such a force, we had to invest in programs which helped keep soldiers in uniform for a lifetime, such as increasing pay and offering re-enlistment bonuses. We also began to institute family support programs and child care services, making the Army a family-friendly institution. Today, 60 percent of the active-duty force is married.

The new Army required recruits with the education, intelligence, and motivation to operate its new high-tech equipment. We also discovered that the best predictor of successful adjustment to Army life was a high school diploma. Today, over 99 percent of our active-duty Army has a high school diploma or its equivalent, and recruiters are excluded from signing up those who score within the bottom tier of their mental aptitude tests.

Finally, the Army underwent a revolution in training, establishing its Combat Training Centers, starting with the National Training Center in the California desert in 1980. There, entire brigades could participate in large-scale mock battles with a fully-equipped Soviet-style opposing force. The training was so rigorous that many felt that a rotation through NTC was actually harder than the Gulf War.

Having spoken to the most battle-tested group of officers our Army has ever produced in my career, it's clear that we must retain the last decade's worth of talent and experience, all while cultivating the Army's future leadership.

Leader development begins with a focus on making leader training our number one priority. However, during peacetime, professional development is especially difficult. Units may be manned at less than optimal levels, and commanders may be tempted to "hang on" to a stellar performer, instead of allowing them to attend the developmental opportunities they deserve. It will be easy for many to justify short-term success for their organization at the expense of the long-term health of our Army. Our future leaders must be able to think strategically, understanding how their actions affect the Army at large.

They'll have to reflect upon, and write about, the lessons learned from the last decade of war, and they'll have to apply those lessons or principles to future conflicts. At the same time, they'll need to realize that future conflicts rarely resemble the last one. Our adversaries have noticed how reliant we are on digital communications -- and are trying to hack our computers, jam our signals, and neutralize our satellites. When these systems fail, we'll truly appreciate the value of leader development. Mission command can only succeed if the next generation of leaders is trained to think strategically -- "two levels up," as we say. We need leaders who can fight and win with minimal guidance. To do that, we must afford them the opportunities to learn and grow, and to capitalize on their unique experiences and knowledge.

LTG William B. Caldwell is currently the commander of U.S. Army North (Fifth Army) in Fort Sam Houston, Texas. He will retire in July, after 37 years of active service, to serve as the president of Georgia Military College.