Sunday afternoon . . .

I loved this story from National Geographic:

Picture of Marine Corporal John Dolezal posing with Cchaz, a Belgian Malinois

The Dogs of War

Out in front of America’s troops, combat canines and their handlers lead the way onto the most dangerous battlefields on Earth.

By Michael Paterniti
Photograph by Adam Ferguson

Here is Marine Corporal Jose Armenta in his tent on the night before getting blown up in Afghanistan. He jokes with Mulrooney and Berry and the medic the guys have nicknamed “Christ.” He feeds and waters his dog, Zenit, a sable-coat German shepherd. He lets Buyes, who will be dead in three months, ruffle Zenit’s fur, for the radioman is crazy about the dog.

Then he takes Zenit outside in the waning light of this dusty, desert otherworld to train.

They’re happiest like this. Jose has Zenit sit, which the dog does obediently, and then Jose jogs 50 yards down and hides a rubber toy, a Kong, up against a mud wall, covering it with dirt. On Jose’s command, Zenit bursts forward, zigging in search of it, tail wagging. It’s an intricate dance. Voice commands met by precise canine action, always with the same end goal in mind—to find the toy. Tomorrow, on patrol, the objective will be finding not a toy but an improvised explosive device, or IED, one of the Taliban’s most brutally effective weapons against American troops here in what many consider the most dangerous province in one of the world’s most dangerous countries. And no dog can find every bomb every time.

MARINE CPL. DASHNO VILLARD WITH BANK

For the past three months Jose’s been stationed at Patrol Base Alcatraz, at the edge of a town called Sangin in Helmand Province, without a “find.” Despite his optimism—the man always beams a disarming smile—the lack of finds is beginning to wear on him almost as much as the 100-degree heat, which feels even hotter rucking 75 pounds of gear.

As a Marine dog handler, Jose is a perpetual outsider, assigned to platoons that have been together for years, tight-knit combat brotherhoods that regard newcomers, especially dog handlers, with a high degree of circumspection. His job is to accompany that platoon, to clear a path through hostile territory for his fellow marines. But as thankful as they may be, Jose knows it’s natural for them to wonder: Is this guy any good? Will he fit in? How will he respond in that first firefight?

At this moment in August of 2011 the stated mission in Sangin is to secure the 320-foot-high Kajaki Dam, to keep the Taliban from blowing it up and flooding the Helmand Valley. The marines of Third Recon, in groups of a dozen or so, take turns disrupting the enemy, mapping active pockets of Taliban fighters. Jose and Zenit are asked to accompany practically every mission. Each time he and Zenit go out beyond the wire, they’re walking point along with a marine carrying a metal detector, making themselves the first targets as Zenit scours the area for any whiff of nitrate that might signal a buried IED. As exhausting as it is, Jose always says yes.

NAVY MASTER-AT-ARMS ERWIN MONTOYA WITH CRASH

Maybe there’s a little chip on Jose’s shoulder, or maybe he feels there’s a lot to prove—to himself, to the marines of Third Recon, and to his family back home. Maybe he’s just doing his job, or maybe he needs just one find to allay whatever doubts he harbors about his—and Zenit’s—ability to do the job. In this place especially, the threat is palpable. Sangin is littered with IEDs and teeming with enemy fighters tucked behind thick mud walls. It’s where British forces, before pulling out of Sangin altogether in 2010, lost more than a hundred troops. It’s been a graveyard since for many Americans, and a place where numerous U.S. troops have received disfiguring injuries.

This is what a dog handler tries not to dwell on: the risk associated with the need to find bombs and with the possibility of missing one. On base you sometimes hear them go off in the distance, set off by a goat, an unsuspecting villager. Sometimes frantic locals will rush a bleeding kid up to Alcatraz for medical help. And the recent news about two fellow dog handlers, Jeremy and Jasco, in his deployment, has been bad. Both were blown up and lost their legs. Jose is clear about this: He’d rather die than lose a limb or some vital body part. He’d rather get waxed than be half a person. What you do to take your mind off the fear is just what Jose does now, as he has done for the past two years: You train your dog, do your job, leave the rest to fate.

The next morning, August 28, Third Recon knows that the Taliban have been busy. Alcatraz sits on a rise out in the cornfields, not far from a wadi, and intel has it that IEDs have been planted everywhere. “We knew someone was going to get hit on that mission,” Sgt. Ryan Mulrooney will say later. “Every day something was getting blown up. We knew going in there that it was a pretty risky movement.”

So for the first time since deploying to Afghanistan, Jose puts on his “blast briefs,” underwear made of Kevlar material to limit genital injuries, and he mounts his helmet cam hoping to document his first find. Then he puts an IV in Zenit to keep him hydrated in the heat.

AIR FORCE STAFF SGT. KATHELENE MERCADO WITH BARTJA

The team moves out at 10 a.m. in ranger file, and Jose guesses it’s already 120 degrees. The marines work down the hill slowly, and when they hit the 611 highway, Jose feels a surge of adrenaline. His mouth goes cottony as he commands Zenit, orchestrating the dog’s every movement. The team veers through the corn to avoid the road, until they hit the wadi that runs parallel to the highway, eight feet deep and ten feet wide, empty of water.

Jose guides Zenit from bank to bank. Mulrooney, working the metal detector, calls out, “I think I got one here.” Jose approaches, looks at the humped, loose dirt with a wire showing, fixes Mulrooney with a smile, and says, “Yup.” The team leader is notified. Jose moves on, spies another device, and calls it out. Sensing a pattern, he sends Zenit to the far side of the wadi, where the dog freezes, tail wagging, nose suddenly working overtime. The change in behavior marks the spot. After nearly a hundred days out here, it’s their first IED as a team.

In his mind Jose throws an invisible high five and lets out a silent whoop. Trainers say, “Emotion runs through the leash.” Jose knows he needs to remain calm, to keep Zenit focused, but how can he not be excited? The team leader is notified again. Jose and Zenit continue down the wadi in the deathly heat. The sun blisters down on the men in formation slow-walking in each other’s footsteps, using shaving cream to mark safe spots. Just like that, three in a row. The riverbed is full of explosives—but where’s the next? With that question, Jose’s elation gives under the weight of duty. He and Zenit are the ones responsible for finding out.

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