All the handlers were congregating in front of the kennels after the day of certification venues, talking about how their individual days had gone. A quick look around told the story. There were many long faces and empty stares at the ground. There were several teams that had failed certification on the first day, and several more that were on the ropes. The instructors tried to cheer us up and keep the teams that were left focused on the day ahead of them. It was hard to think about your buddy, that you had sucked with for almost 2 months now, going down range without his dog. It was hard to be happy about the day that Fama and I had when our friends were hurting. Heath came over to address the group.
“You guys need to relax out there. None of these venues was difficult at all. You defeated yourselves by over-thinking everything. Every one of you could have passed today, but you got so nervous about the certification that you fell apart. No one is going home just yet. All the dog teams will continue through certification, and the passing teams will be announced at the end. Whoever fails to certify will be given a second chance, after further training. They will stay behind and certify with the next class that comes through. Now get some rest, and relax out there tomorrow.”
Sighs of relief traveled through the crowd. It wasn’t the end of the road after all. The handlers started joking around, poking fun at the ones who could take it, and comforting the ones who needed it. Our group had grown tight over the last couple of months, and it was good to know that no one was out of the game just yet. It was time to head home, get some sleep, and get ready to kick some ass the following day.
The next 3 days of certification were much the same. Teams continued to struggle in the heat, and under the pressure. I saw one dog dive under a bush and lay down, just happy to get some shade. The handler carried her to an ATV we had waiting to take her back to the kennels and get her cooled down. There were times on the long route clear that I would take Fama’s temperature every 10 minutes to be sure she wasn’t overheating. Some guys just made stupid mistakes and didn’t get their dogs into the area that the hide was located. In the end, only 8 out of the original 20 made it through the first certification.
We had a little graduation ceremony at the hotel, complete with a slideshow of pictures and cake. Fama and I were recognized as the “Top Dog” team, and presented with a plaque and an award. I was so proud of my little girl. She hunted through the worst parts of the day, giving the dogs that were struggling a chance to run in the morning when it was cool. She never faltered, never quit, even when her temperature was 106 degrees. She never even slowed down. I felt bad for the guys that didn’t make it. They had all tried every bit as hard as I did. It mattered to them.
The next days were spent packing. We were to take a military flight directly from YPG, so we got all our bags and dog food on pallets, ready to fly. The 8 of us loaded up on buses and headed to the flight line. Fama rode up in the bus with me this time. I was not having a repeat of the trip leaving Indiana. We loaded up on the C17 and headed across the pond, stopping in Germany for a 16 hour layover, where the dogs stayed in the Military Police kennels. The next afternoon we were in Afghanistan. Shit just got real.
The second the ramp was opened on the C17, that familiar, unwelcome smell drifted through the plane. The compost smell of the middle east. It’s a mix of shit and garbage, that have both been around since the dawn of time. I didn’t miss that smell. The ever present wind at Bagram Air Field was full of fine dust. I didn’t want to think about what that dust could possibly contain. The anticipation of the unknown was visible. No one knew what to expect, and for some of the handlers, this was their first deployment. The cherries all had wrinkled noses. Welcome to Afghanistan, here’s your mouth full of shit.
We deplaned with our dogs, glad for the half mile walk to the terminal. As we walked across the flight line, I felt lucky to be in good company. The 8 of us that made it through certification were all good soldiers, and good friends. Sly was there with his dog Bak, a silly, knuckle-headed, all black German Shepherd. Scott had Chatsi, the little female Malinois, who was darting around him like a pinball while they walked. John was laughing as Taz did front flips, trying to get his muzzle off. Alex was being drug down the pavement by Bruno, a Malinois the size of some small Great Danes. Larry had Alex, the cross eyed German Shepherd who acts like a puppy, and pees on his front feet. Shane walked with Fil, a nice young German Shepherd. Griff, a beautiful male Malinois, was pulling Long all over the place, just like a typical Mal. The dogs were as different in appearance and personality as the handlers, but we made a great group.
It was nice to stretch our legs and let the pups have some freedom. We had been cooped up on that C17 for the better part of 3 days. Luchian and Gary had left 2 weeks prior to our departure to get everything ready for us when we got there. They both met us at the terminal and helped us get in-processed, so the Army knew just where we were. It is a definite challenge to navigate a busy flight line with all your gear and a dog. The trainers, having both deployed with dogs before, were a great help, plus, it was great to see some familiar faces. We knew we were in good hands.
We loaded all our gear and dog food on a flat bed truck and hopped on a bus with our dogs, which took us around the flight line to the other side of BAF (Bagram Air Field) to our temporary home, an empty motor pool. We shacked up with our dogs in a big garage for the night, happy to have a place to stay that was close to the chow hall. There were 2 old offices in the motor pool that had bunk beds in them, and we quickly claimed our bunks and got settled in.
I kept Fama in the room with me in her crate, while the rest of the dogs were out in the garage. This helped keep her quiet, or none of us would have had any sleep. Every time somebody would walk past her kennel, she would ambush them, barking 3 or 4 times until they walked away. John forgot that Fama was in the room, and walked right by her kennel. Her timing was perfect. When she barked, it startled him so much he bounced off the bunk bed across the aisle and almost fell over. He sat down on the bunk, clutching his chest and shaking his head. “Hi Fama,” he said.
The truck and bus showed up the next afternoon and took us over to the tent, our home for the next month. We walked through the door into pandemonium. There were dogs and handlers everywhere, and it sounded like 100 dogs were barking. We didn’t know it, but there were 30 dog teams on their way home, living in the same tent we were going to be staying in. We all grabbed a spot to sleep, which consisted of a bunk bed and just enough room for a dog crate next to it. Luckily, there were metal wall lockers in between each sleeping area, so we had a little privacy, and plenty of electrical outlets. Soldiers just can’t live without their laptops.
Fama was on high alert, barking at everything that moved. She was used to staying alone with me in the hotel room, and now she had to deal with sharing her space with 37 dogs, 37 handlers, and 2 trainers. I ran some 550 cord, basic nylon rope used by soldiers for everything from boot laces to lashing a load down on a truck, and hung a couple of blankets around our new home. This helped her quiet down, a little. I ended up running her leash through the door on her crate to her collar, so I could correct her when she decided to be an ass. By evening time, she had settled in and started to relax.
The next morning I took Fama out to relieve herself, and noticed she was scratching quite a bit. She stopped several times through our walk to dig at this spot, and then that. This was something new, but I figured she just needed to get used to the strange climate. It was even hotter here than in Arizona, and it would take the dogs and handlers both a couple of weeks to adjust. After breakfast, the trainers started our acclimatization.
We gathered on the road out in front of the compound where our tent was located, and conducted PT (physical training). We were to sprint down the road, with our dogs, 100 yards to a set of barriers, and walk back. Fama was looking good, heeling by my left leg on a loose leash. All that obedience training we did was paying off. After 4 repetitions of the sprint and walk, we stopped to check our dog’s temperatures to make sure they were not over heating, when Alex went into a panic. Bruno had been pulling at the end of the leash the whole time they were running, and his temperature was 106.5, and rising. This is the point where some dogs can experience permanent brain damage. Alex went from confident soldier to concerned parent in the blink of an eye.
Bruno seemed fine. He was panting hard, but he didn’t have any signs of serious trouble, such as loss of coordination, the inability to stop panting, confusion, or vomiting. Alex, who is a huge human being, snatched the 95 pound Bruno off the ground with one hand, put him up on his shoulder, and headed for the shade of the tent at a sprint. Once there, a whole crew of handlers started cooling Bruno off by misting him with water, and rubbing his belly with wet hands. Alex had put Bruno in front of the “swamp cooler,” a big fan that draws air through a water soaked filter for cooling by evaporation. Gary loaded them up in a van and took the dog team to the Vet’s office right away. We were all worried about them until they came back. We all rushed to the door when we heard Bruno bark his customary “hello” when he entered the tent. Bruno was his normal goofy self, trying his best to pull off a Marmaduke impersonation, bouncing around the tent, barking playfully at everyone, play bowing and hopping like he was 8 months old. Alex had the look of a relieved parent. All his energy gone, used up worrying about his battle buddy.
That afternoon, we went out to do our first training venue in Afghanistan. We loaded up the dogs on the back of a flat bed “Bongo” truck, and put the handlers in a green van, making quite the spectacle as we drove out to the training area, with 8 barking dogs on the back of the truck. Gary and Luchian had told us not to expect much from our dogs. They had to learn the new smells in this area, and had to get used to the new climate. Gary set up a simple open area search in a big stone lot. It was an easy detection problem compared to what we had been doing in Arizona.
I volunteered to go first, confident in Fama’s ability to find the hide in this area. They said the dogs would go through the same thing when we went to Arizona, and Fama had never missed a beat. I got her out of her crate, and headed out to Gary, who was waiting in the middle of the stone lot. Fama did not like the stones at all. She was picking her way along like walking on hot coals. We had never worked on a surface like this before, and it was very uncomfortable for her. [i]Suck it up dog, there is work to do.[/i] We got to Gary and he noted how Fama was walking. He said she would get used to it, and having fun while in the stones would help that process.
I asked Fama to sit, removed her leash, and gave her the command to search. At this time, she would normally squirt ahead of me, searching diligently in a focused manner. She took 3 steps and looked back over her shoulder. This was going to take some work. I picked up the enthusiasm, hopping around, getting out ahead of her presenting things for her to search, showing her that it was fun. I was getting really gay with it, in full on oggie-boogie mode, and she was responding. Her tail was moving and her movement was better. I knew we were quickly coming up on the hide, and she should be exhibiting that beautiful change of behavior she was known for. I presented right on the hide when she was less than 3 feet away. The bitch walked right by.