Bomb-sniffing dogs are troops' best friends
Military dogs save lives as they hunt for bombs in Afghanistan. The canines walk a dangerous line with the risky work, and like their human counterparts, they may contend with grief and even PTSD.
Seattle Times staff reporter
FORWARD OPERATING BASE MASUM GHAR, Afghanistan — Dinomt, a 90-pound German shepherd trained to detect the scent of explosives, could grow edgy in a firefight.
Whenever the shooting started, Petty Officer 2nd Class Leroy Williams would strive to keep his canine partner calm by maintaining his own cool.
"There is something that all the dog handlers say. 'Your emotions go down the leash,' " Williams said. "Your dogs feel everything you are feeling. And when you are nervous and afraid, your dogs know it."
In Afghanistan, handlers and their military working dogs help find IEDs, improvised explosive devices, that have repeatedly killed and maimed U.S. troops.
On foot patrols, soldiers wielding metal detectors and other devices locate most of the IEDs.
But the dogs' ability to find these bombs makes them a valuable addition to foot patrols. The dogs and their handlers often are assigned to difficult missions that stretch several days or more, and require navigating through trails and fields planted with lots of bombs.
Williams arrived in Afghanistan last spring along with three other Navy colleagues and their canine partners. Since then, two of those dog handlers have died from combat wounds.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Sean Brazas, from Naval Base Kitsap Security Detachment in Bremerton, was shot in late May, while assisting a soldier wounded in a firefight.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Brodsky, from a San Diego base, stepped on an IED in early July and died of his injuries two weeks later.
Williams served as a dog handler on previous tours of duty in Kuwait and Iraq, but says nothing compares to Afghanistan.
"This is the hardest by far. I lost two really, really good friends," said Williams in a September interview from the base in Panjwai District. "We encounter so much, and we are out there a lot."
When dogs find bombs
At the base in Masum Ghar, Williams lived with other Navy, Air Force and Army handlers in a plywood bunkhouse just a short distance from the kennels. The handlers feed their dogs, exercise them, check for bumps and bruises and offer rub downs. Every once in a while, Dinomt would sleep on Williams' bed.
"We take them out and play with them," said Staff Sgt. Gabriel Travers, an Air Force handler. "But we have to walk a fine line to where the dog is going to respect you and do what you tell him, and the dog is going to work for you."
In Afghanistan, the handlers patrol with German shepherds, Dutch shepherds and a slender smaller breed, the Belgian Malinois, that Williams says can be very hyper. "All they want to do is work."
The dogs are trained to display what the handlers call a "passive response" when they find bombs. They do not bark or paw at the ground. When they pinpoint a site, they sit, stop and stare in the direction of the bomb.
Williams says that long before Dinomt would "go final" with that routine, he would display subtler signs that a bomb was near. If his tail was swaying back and forth, it might go still, or his nose would work the ground more intently.
During a summer patrol, when Dinomt appeared to be getting close to an IED, Williams quickly called the dog over to his side to keep the dog away from the bomb. "I just loved him up, and we got out of there," Williams recalled.
The bomb was then detonated by a demolition specialist.
Williams and Dinomt rotated through four bases, ending up in late summer at Masum Ghar in the Panjwai District.
During 1,700 hours of foot patrols in August, dog teams working out of that base found four IEDs.
But Afghanistan also has helped define the limitations of these working dogs.
During the intense summer heat, temperatures may soar above 120 degrees. The handlers do not let their dogs drink water from irrigation canals. So to keep Dinomt hydrated, Williams had to pack several cases of bottled water on his back in addition to all his combat gear.
Some dogs, even if well hydrated, eventually lose focus in the heat and are unable to hunt for bombs without a break.
The larger German shepherds, with their thick coats of fur, appear to be at a bigger disadvantage in the heat than the smaller Belgian Malinois, according to some dog handlers.
And Dinomt had another quirk. He couldn't swim. So on occasion, Williams would have to hoist the dog on his back to ford an irrigation canal.
In recent years, some veterinarians also have begun to speak about military dogs, like their human counterparts, suffering from post-traumatic-stress disorder. That diagnosis came as no surprise to the handlers.
"They are finally, finally saying that dogs are having it — PTSD," Williams said. "It's been around for a while."
One stressed-out dog in Afghanistan would lose control of his bowels, and shake and cry when exposed to shooting or loud noises. That dog had to be sent home.
Another dog became spooked by loud noises and would try to run away from the base when mortars were fired.
When Brazas, from Naval Base Kitsap, was struck by enemy fire, his dog, Sicario, struggled fiercely to stay by the mortally wounded handler as he was put into a helicopter for medical evacuation. Finally, the dog was pulled away.
After Brazas' death, Williams spent four days caring for Sicario. Williams recalls that the dog, normally so hyper and alert, was listless and just wanted to lie around.
Upon returning to Washington, Sicario appeared to continue to mourn.
"He was pretty torn up. He had his tail between his legs. He didn't bark. Clearly, something was wrong. He knew what had happened," said Allie Brazas, the widow of Sean Brazas.
At Naval Base Kitsap, Sicario is now assigned to a new handler.
It has been a difficult adjustment, but he is undergoing daily training and is expected to be able to "get back to performing at the high level he is known for," said Chief Petty Officer Allan McGathey, the kennel master for the 10 military working dogs at the base.
Back at Masum Ghar, the base kennel is dedicated to the memory of Brazas. A photo of the Navy handler — and Sicario — is posted on the plywood door that serves as its entry.
In late September, the Masum Ghar kennel suffered yet another loss.
On an overnight patrol, Dinomt, after traversing some 10 kilometers, stepped on an IED and was killed by the blast. Williams was a few feet away and suffered bruises and a traumatic brain injury that ended his tour in Afghanistan. A soldier also was injured.
Recovering from his wounds, Williams grieves for Dinomt.
"He somehow took most of the blast, saving my life," Williams said. "I am eternally grateful. There has not been a night go by yet that I don't miss him and even cry for him. He will forever be in my heart, loved and missed."
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org