We Need War Dogs, More Than Ever

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Canine units aren't just effective bomb detectors; they're the single greatest force protecting our troops against IEDs.

dog-dog-body.jpgRebecca Frankel

Picture a sprawling grape field, row after row of low-leaning mud walls blanketed with dry leaves. It's winter in Helmand, Afghanistan. In the middle of the field are 20 U.S. soldiers crouching for cover; they've just endured an insurgent attack. Now that the gunfire has quieted, K-9 handler Staff Sgt. Justin Kitts and his working dog, Dyngo, are clearing the area for explosives. Kitts watches his dog sniffing the ground and quickly sees the dog's quick pace become slow and deliberate, the telltale change -- Dyngo has found an IED. And a short time later, when the two of them search the road on the other side of the field, they find another. Each bomb, made of roughly 50 pounds of home-made explosives and buried two feet underground, is attached to a pressure plate hidden along these roads. The insurgents had used their gunfire to box the unit into an-IED trap.

Kitts told me that if either of those bombs had gone off that January day, the force of the blast would have been so strong that even 20 meters away, he, Dyngo, and the other soldiers in the grape field would have been well within the kill zone. During their seven-month deployment in Afghanistan Dyngo and Kitts spent over 1,000 hours outside the wire and uncovered 370 lbs of explosives and a total of four IEDs. In 2011, they were awarded the Bronze Star.

These last 12 months have been the year of the war dog. Today marks the first anniversary of the Osama bin Laden mission and the report that a canine known as Cairo was assigned to the elite Navy Seals team that hunted down the world's most wanted terrorist. It was news of this dog that awakened the public to the wide world of U.S. combat canines. And while details of the dog's assignment have still not been officially released, the very fact that Cairo was on the mission proves that the military working dog is one of our most valuable military assets.

But here we are a year later. The U.S. military, which has been fighting the war against IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan, has pulled its troops from one country and is steadily moving to wrap up military business in the other. Inquiring minds are bound to wonder: What's going to happen to our MWDs -- our military working dogs?

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These dogs are far more than furry bomb detectors. They are force multipliers, fierce deterrents, loyal defenders. The MWD bite packs an average of 400 to 700 pounds of pressure. A dog's nose, which can have hundreds of millions more olfactory receptors than a human's, is so powerful it can distinguish between a wide range of different bomb-making materials and can find large quantities of explosives buried upwards of five feet underground. In 2010, after four years of failed attempts and $19 billion spent, the agency charged with the task of defeating the IED, JIEDDO, announced that the single greatest force in detecting IEDs was indisputably a dog and its handler.

We've spent over a decade fighting insurgencies in two wars and without a doubt IEDs are the most menacing weapons in their arsenal. For the amount of destruction they cause, IEDs are sickeningly cheap and easy to make, their results terrifying. In its recently released Counter-IED Strategic Plan for 2012-2016, JIEDDO reported a rise in IED use around the world -- 12,286 people were killed from 6,832 incidents occurring in 111 countries. (In fact, 28 casualties resulted from IED explosions in the United States.) Pay careful attention to this part: these numbers do not include Iraq and Afghanistan, which means the IED battleground is expanding around the world.

Even those of us with little interest in military strategy might rightly assume that in the wake of such news, the United States would want to keep its strongest asset against IEDs: its dog teams, full-bodied and robust. But I'm hearing reports from inside the military canine community that the working dog programs are already feeling the pinch of belt-tightening cutbacks.

This leads me to believe that those making the decisions about our canine-funding dollars haven't observed our dogs and handlers doing their job. If they had, they would be asking themselves how a remote-controlled robot could careen around a series of tight doorways with equal speed and agility of a dog. Or scale an 8-foot wall, or navigate a low-hanging barbed-wire fence, or a muddy ditch in the pitch black of night. How about sensing danger that isn't buried in the ground? Because these are all things a dog can do.

One of the most crucial MWD resources that could be on the war-fighting budget chopping block is the Inter-Service Advance Skills K9 Course at Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. Seen by most in the field as the premier pre-deployment training course, it is unique for many reasons. It's staffed by highly experienced instructors who have deployed at least once and handled dogs outside the wire. Its austere desert environment closely resembles the Middle East and Afghanistan. And it is open to all military branches -- Marine Corps, Air Force, Army, and Navy.

This past March, I spent two weeks at Yuma shadowing dog team after dog team -- following a few steps behind them as they ran through detection drills, searching for plants concealed along the side of compounds, under rock piles, in ceilings, and in abandoned vehicles, among other places. On one afternoon, I hung back with the instructor, Staff Sergeant Lee McCoy who, in the chill of the early morning, had shown me exactly where he'd hidden a pressure plate. I knew that if the handler or dog stepped on it, a high-pitched alarm would ring, signaling that he'd missed his mark -- that he'd just hypothetically blown up. Each time the dog and handler would round that corner where the plant was hidden, my muscles tensed. When the alarm didn't sound, I exhaled in relief. When it did, that's when the frightening reality set in: In the hopscotch war against IEDs, there is no way to side step them all. But the teams that pass the course at Yuma are at least better prepared. They know what to expect when they're doing it for real.

We're far from done fighting IEDs in Afghanistan. And by all accounts, we'll be facing more and more of them after that war ends. By investing in dogs like Dyngo and handlers like Kitts, we're giving our troops -- no matter where they are -- the best chance possible to get to the other side of those roads unharmed. All we have to do now is put the money where the dog is.


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Rebecca Frankel is a writer living in Washington, D.C. She is currently on leave from her post at Foreign Policy Magazine where she writes a weekly feature on military working dogs, working on a book about canines in combat to be published by Free Press.

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