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Originally published June 1, 2013 at 6:18 AM | Page modified June 4, 2013 at 6:26 AM

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Afghan veteran vying for dog heroism award

Eddie, a 4-year-old bomb-sniffing dog, saved his human Air Force buddies from several IEDs last year in Afghanistan. This year, he’s entered in the American Humane Association’s 2013 Hero Dog Awards competition.

Tampa Bay Times

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Eddie may have saved his best friend’s life when he detected a bomb in Afghanistan last year. He might have saved the lives of several other troops as well.

Eddie didn’t get a parade. He didn’t get a medal. He didn’t even get a promotion.

His reward was a red ball and he was ecstatic. He grabbed it with his mouth, raised his head up high and danced his happy dance.

The 4-year-old Belgian Malinois is a bomb-sniffing dog at MacDill Air Force Base and is one of 14 military canines nationally entered in the American Humane Association’s 2013 Hero Dog Awards competition. Winners in several categories will be announced later this year, with an overall champion picked Oct. 5.

The winner gets $5,000, donated to the handler’s chosen charity. In Eddie’s case, that would be the U.S. War Dog Association.

One person at MacDill can personally vouch for Eddie’s heroism: his former handler, Air Force Staff Sgt. Shannon Hutto, 26.

The pair deployed to Afghanistan in 2011. By spring 2012, they were already close friends, rarely more than a few feet apart.

On May 23, 2012, Hutto had Eddie on a leash leading a 13-man platoon during a routine daytime patrol. The group stopped to rest as an officer talked to some locals. Hutto sat against a tree, Eddie beside him.

It wasn’t long before the group got the command to move out. Hutto stood and took one step. Eddie, beside him, wouldn’t budge.

“He didn’t want to get up,” Hutto recalled. “At first, I thought he was just being lazy.”

Eddie gave his buddy what Hutto called a kind of exasperated look. The dog lowered his nose and nudged something under the dust. Hutto looked closely. Just 6 inches from his foot was the contact plate that would detonate an improvised explosive device, or IED.

Hutto said, “It was a moment of clarity.”

He backed away. He pulled a ball from a pocket. He threw it in the direction opposite the IED. It was Eddie’s usual reward.

The dog preferred it over treats. Heck, he might have preferred it over a Humvee ride. Eddie’s training at MacDill was designed as a game: Do good, get red ball, play with human pal.

Not long after, Eddie found a second IED on a bridge the platoon was about to cross.

Out came the red ball. Good boy.

Eddie is one of about a dozen dogs at MacDill. Not all are trained to detect explosives. Others can detect drugs or humans. Many, like Eddie, can attack on command. One dog has been deployed five times. Eddie has gone overseas just once.

At MacDill, Eddie is considered one of the best. He’s always on. He always wants to play. “He’s kind of a nut,” said Hutto affectionately.

And like a proven combat veteran, Eddie is the kind of dog any new handler wants as a partner.

“He’s got street cred,” Hutto said.

Eddie’s got a new trainer now, Staff Sgt. Josh Bennett. In the career of most military dogs, switching trainers is routine. Bennett said he knows his partner is a good one.

“He’s got the highest drive I’ve ever seen,” Bennett said.

Hutto, who trains dogs at MacDill, still visits his friend most days and gets out the red ball.

Hutto has been on hand to watch Bennett develop his own bond with Eddie.

Military dogs retire just like the rest of us. Often, the dogs become the pets of a former handler.

When Eddie eventually musters out of the Air Force, an old friend will be waiting for him.

“He’s mine,” Hutto said.

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@tampabay.com.

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