Take Gabe for instance, a yellow Labrador Retriever who has three Army Commendation Medals and an Army Achievement Medal for finding explosives in Iraq. Actually, Gabe’s awards are not for finding weapons, ammunition, or bombs; but for saving lives.
How about Cairo, the Belgian Malinois that accompanied SEAL Team Six to Pakistan on the mission to kill Osama bin Laden? Cairo and the Navy SEALs were honored in a presidential ceremony marking the mission’s success – they got the bad guy.
If dogs can be heroes, can they also suffer the ravages of combat, just as humans do?
“It traumatized her, so she’s having trouble with loud noises,” said Maj. Dawn Brown, a Marine Corps reservist with the 3rd Civil Affairs Group out of Camp Pendleton, Calif. A civilian veterinarian, Brown works with livestock and large animals in Afghanistan while deployed.
“She startles and shuts down during a bomb blast or small arms fire,” Brown said, adding she believes Allie is suffering from combat-related stress.
Brown, a native of Bonsall, Calif., walked Allie occasionally while the dog was at Camp Leatherneck for several weeks before being sent for evaluation and reset training.
Keeping the dogs in the fight save lives explains John Kello, one of the field service representatives contracted to train and coordinate the Improvised Detection Dogs at Camp Leatherneck.
“The dogs take the threat away from the human being,” said Kello, who hails from Windsor, Va. “Nothing is more effective at finding IEDs. Plus it’s a morale boost,” he said, adding the dogs offer a small respite for the soldiers and Marines.
“Everybody out there is sacrificing their physical well being, their families. They give a lot and it takes a toll,” Kello said.
When the dogs get sick or wounded, they are medevaced out of the battle zone – if transportation is available. An Army veterinarian picks the patients up at the flight line and rushes them to the veterinary clinic for treatment.
Army veterinarian teams in Regional Command Southwest, Helmand province, Afghanistan, included Maj. Dennis Bell and Capt. SaraRose Knox, both with the 401st Army Field Support Brigade Veterinary Services at Camp Leatherneck, Capt. Sean McPeck, with 436rd Medical Detachment Veterinary Service at Camp Dwyer, Afghanistan, and a veterinary clinic in Kabul, Afghanistan.
More than five percent of the nearly 650 military dogs currently deployed with American combat troops are developing a canine form of post-traumatic stress disorder, said Dr. Walter F. Burghardt Jr., chief of behavioral medicine at the Daniel E. Holland Military Working Dog Hospital at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.
Though veterinarians recognize behavioral problems in animals, the concept of canine PTSD is fairly recent, Burghardt explained; coming on the heels of a greater number of dogs used in theater to find bombs and explosive material.
The Department of Defense considers improvised explosive devices to be the weapons of choice for terrorists in places like Afghanistan, an undeveloped country of mostly rural communities.
IEDs typically contain fertilizer and chemicals used in farming, with little or no metal making them nearly invisible to mine-sweeping apparatus – equipment that operates in a similar fashion as metal detectors.
Explosive detector dogs can sense odor concentrations as small as one to two parts per billion, too small to measure with current equipment according to an Air Force fact sheet on military working dogs. Labradors are used most often as they can smell 17 different odors associated with homemade explosives.
On patrol, the handler and dog team ranges ahead.
“When someone thinks there is something, the dog would go and check it out. We would have what we call confirms,” said Marine Cpl. Jared Charpentier, who spent several months in Sangin, Afghanistan, looking for IEDs with his partner, Gracie, a black Labrador Retriever.
“If she hit on something and there would be an IED – which happened a couple of times – we took care of it with (Explosive Ordnance Disposal). We didn’t miss anything, so I feel pretty good about the work that we did,” said Charpentier, a native of Moses Lake, Wash.
The corporal is glad he and Gracie have returned to Camp Leatherneck unscathed and that Gracie saved lives through their work together. Other dogs, like Allie, may not be able to continue hunting for bombs after they are injured.
“When a dog comes back with gunfire issues, we look at how she acts, how she reacts, where her tail is at and how she responds to commands,” said Chad O’Brien, a field service representative. “We have to see if they can deal with the gunfire and get back to work – that’s part of the game.”
Different dogs exhibit different symptoms, but those symptoms are similar to indications of PTSD in a human. Some dogs become hyper-vigilant or overly aggressive, while others hide or shut down completely.
Although Allie still fetches her Kong toy and continues to sniff for explosive material on command, at the sound of gunfire at a nearby training range, her tail goes down and she becomes skittish.
When a dog stops hunting for hidden bombs and explosive material – running off to hide at the onset of gunfire or explosions – handlers end up chasing them, creating an unsafe situation in a combat zone.
“It’s not worth the risk if the Marines have to go find her,” O’Brien, a native of Burnham, Maine, said.
Allie was with the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines who deemed she was no longer fit for service in the field. She was returned to Camp Leatherneck for decompression and then sent back to Southern Pines, N.C. for reset training. Some dogs may return to Lackland for reset as well.
“Just like with a person, you bring them back and give them time to rest and recover and then re-expose them to that and see how they behave and react,” explained Bell.
Reset training involves desensitizing the dog to the loud booms of simulated mortar rounds and arms fire. There is a lot of emotion in each scenario too. But no matter the amount of training, the actual experience of being under fire cannot be reproduced.
“You can’t duplicate what goes on outside the wire,” O’Brien said. There’s no way – that energy; that fear; that excitement. We simulate, not duplicate [the experiences].”
Allie has three shots at recertifying and being returned to bomb sniffing in Afghanistan, O’Brien said. But for the most part, dogs sent out of theater do not come back into the battle space.
“If they can’t make it here on game day, they can’t do it,” O’Brien said. “You can’t train for the Super Bowl the day before.”