Dispatch From Downrange
Leave no one behind!
So many things to say but right now only a few come to mind. The days run into each other day in and day out. The days fall into pretty much a routine. Get up, get in uniform, and take care of my partner Uzo. This means walking, kennel cleaning, getting fresh water, and feeding (all before six AM). We have been training here is Bagram for about a month. The work of detecting explosives hidden in cargo and vehicles is extremely exacting. It is not like if you miss a couple it is ok. Miss an IED or cargo bomb and you are setting the wheels of destruction in motion. Thousands of vehicles are searched each month at the forward operating bases or FOBs. Anyone could be a potential weapon of mass destruction. Anyone could cost you or your team their lives. That being said, you tend to be pretty careful. Maybe that is an understatement, You are damn careful.
Something else Iíve learned about this place is just how impoverished it is. I have said to myself that it is medieval but actually I donít think they are that far along. Now my view is from the confines of a military base and just a little bit outside of it. I donít feel especially comfortable out in the populous. Something else that is taking getting used to, remember I was a police officer there in the community, is dealing with people that have their faces covered. Who knows just who is behind that mask? The guy putting fuel in the vehicle yesterday may be the same guy firing the RPG at the planes the next. You just donít know and people walking around looking like bandits. Yes I know it is their culture but it is still unsettling to the unaccustomed. Speaking of RPGs the alarm just went off as Iím writing this and an impact of something was down the road. Not close, maybe a quarter mile.
Anyway, to get to the point of this article, my partner Uzo , a German Shepherd, is a bomb dog. He sniffs out the hidden explosives. He is actually pretty famous here as he has spent the last 4 years in Afghanistan with the Canadian Special Forces clearing the way for patrols and aggressive operations. He has been working on everything from searching mountain foot paths to rooting out weapons cashes in villages. That is a long time in these harsh conditions. If you count it in dog years, he had been fighting the Taliban for 28 years before he was assigned to me. Now it is starting to tell. The many many searches are taking their toll.
Last week, Uzo and I were searching a line of about 40 trucks and I could tell he was having trouble. He wasnít keeping up with me and I had to direct his search pattern much more detailed than normal. As a dog handler the most important thing is to be able to ďreadĒ your dog. You have to be able to see the change in behavior when he smells a target odor. You get to where you can almost feel the dog through the leash. They tell us in training classes that nerves and emotions will travel down the leash to the dog. Well after a while they travel back up the leash too. It was clear to me that Uzo had broken down. He was trying to follow my directions but just wasnít able to function as normal. I immediately notified my kennel master and we as a team were pulled off of searching until the higher authorities figured out just what the options were
I am a certified explosive dog handler but only with Uzo. We are certified as a team. Now my teammate was in trouble. After several meetings and review of records it was decided that Uzo was no longer capable of consistently searching for explosives and his bomb detection career was over.
This left me in sort of a spot too. It was decided that I would be issued a new dog and the training with this new partner would start immediately. I was instructed to pack all my gear and to standby to standby. During the few days while I was waiting on word of travel I still took care of Uzo. He clearly missed the work as it was playtime as far as he was concerned and I missed working with him. It was a very sad few days. Uzo stopped eating and became pretty listless. In fact the only way I could get him to eat was to sit in the kennel with him. This was something I did not mind in the least but also something that clearly was not going to be a long-term solution. I was told on the next Monday that I had a flight to Kandahar that evening and to put my stuff on the truck to be taken to the flightline.
I asked the kennel master about what was going to happen to my dog? I was reminded that Uzo belonged to the company and he was company property, but he would be making the trip to Kandahar with me. Kandahar is the central hub where all the dogs come into and leave country. After we got checked in at the Air force terminal, I was asked if I wanted my kennel or would my dog be riding with me. Cool, I thought to myself and Uzo, on leash, and I went out to the bus that would take us to the waiting C-130 on the tarmac. Uzo immediately jumped up in the seat next to me on the bus like it was a normal day. He quickly became the center of attention. You must understand how a dog is viewed by the service members here. A dog is something that brings back a part of home for a little while. Most people have pets and they miss them. I am always asked if they can pet Uzo whenever we are around service members. Uzo loves it and is always ready to oblige. On the plane, Uzo climbed up on the seat next to me and laid down and went to sleep. I rode the whole way stroking his coat and trying not to think about losing him.
In Kandahar we disembarked and went to the kennels where I would be staying. The next morning I was assigned a new dog named Jack and informed that I was needed to work narcotics. There was a shortage of certified narcotic handlers and I happened to be one of the only double certified handlers in the region. Uzo was placed in one of the kennels and was form all intents and purposes retired. By the way, I was also assigned to personally take care of him while he and I were still in Kandahar. That was a nice consideration as the regional director in Kandahar knew how close we were. He was a handler too and knows how it is.
Over the next few days and several Skype phone calls to my wife I filed adoption papers for Uzo. Today, Tuesday, I found out I will not be able to adopt Uzo. He has a new duty and one to be proud of. This hero dog that has served to keep soldiers safe will be going to his new job. He will stay in Afghanistan as a therapy dog to help service members deal with the stress and ptsd that is so common. Ironically the organization he is going to suffered the loss of a therapy dog in an attack on their convoy recently. Uzo will take up that fallen dogís place.
One line from the soldierís creed is: I will never leave a fallen comrade.
Well, I was a soldier years ago and I just wont leave anyone behind, regardless whether they have two legs or four. I tried to bring him home but duty called and he is answering. Clearly this dog feels the same as I do. He, like me, is retired but still serving.
From Kandahar Afghanistan this has been a dispatch from downrange.