The days spent at Bagram turned into carbon copies of one another. Fama and I were leading a Groundhog Day existence. We would wake at the same time every day, head out to the break area and take a walk for an hour, conduct obedience training in the tent or the gravel lot across the street, take a break for lunch, continue with more obedience after lunch, head to the gym for a run, break for dinner and then train all night. I couldn’t even tell you what day of the week it was, because it didn’t matter. We were growing incrementally every day, progressing to off leash obedience in crowded areas and conducting more difficult searches during training. This continual progression was rewarding, but not fulfilling. We needed to get out there and make a difference. It had been weeks since we had even struggled on a training venue, let alone had a miss. Fama was back to her normal self while working, and I couldn’t understand why we were being held back.
I tried applying gentle but persistent pressure on Gary, joking with him several times throughout the day that we were going crazy, or needed a change of scenery. I would work on Luchian when we were watching other dog teams run venues, trying to make him understand that if we didn’t move on, we were going to start slipping through lack of stimulating challenges. Most of the training venues were generic, suitable for all the teams. Only occasionally would a challenging venue be set up for the more advanced teams that were further along in their training.
SFC Shemp had said that he wanted to see me, Alex and Kyle run a couple of venues, and if he liked what he saw, he was going to get us pushed forward to our units. The problem was that he would fail to show up at our training events. Gary would schedule training at a time when SFC Shemp said he was available, but he wouldn’t show up. We were all getting frustrated with the whole situation, and morale was starting to slide south. More often than not, when a group of soldiers was found talking among themselves, the topic was how we were being treated unfairly. Several of us had fired off emails to the “Powers That Be”, explaining the situation and pleading for a resolution to our situation. I’m not sure who it was, but somebody listened, and a certain SFC got his pee pee slapped.
SFC Shemp contacted Gary and requested to see the 3 dog teams that were ready at our earliest convenience. That equated to right f-word now. We loaded up the truck and headed to the rubble piles. This training location was an area 1 mile long and a 1/4 mile wide where they had dumped about 30 demolished concrete buildings. There were paths through the rubble that vehicles could drive down, with broken concrete and trash piled up on either side. It was a great and terrible place to train. Every step down the path presented a hundred places to hide a bomb and another hundred distracting odors for the dogs to deal with. Gary figured if we could operate in these conditions, we could operate just about anywhere.
SFC Shemp was waiting at the rubble piles, complete with a bag of bombs and a seriously cowed attitude. He wasn’t man enough to apologize, but the words would have been empty anyways. He and Gary set up a problem along the edge of the rubble piles, in a location that the wind played constant tricks on the dogs. I was happy to see them walk off in a direction that I knew would present a challenge. I wanted to prove myself beyond the shadow of doubt. I knew we were ready, Gary and Luchian had both said repeatedly that we were ready, and I wanted to hear it come from SFC Shemp’s mouth.
Gary called back to the group and asked for me and Fama. I harnessed my dog and walked confidently to the start point, noticing that Gary had a smile on his face, and SFC Shemp didn’t really want to meet my gaze. I listened to his brief of our mock operation and went right to work. I sent Fama down the path, making sure she was performing a complete search, but not moving down the road with her. I had it in my mind to show this guy what we were made of. I was going to run this venue in a way none of his dogs could, off leash at distance, with almost no handler direction. The only command I issued was OUT, to send her further up the road.
Fama would check back with me after 25 yards of searching, and I just kept pressing her down the road, confident that she wouldn’t miss anything along the way. She was at the top of her game, investigating and discarding every nook and cranny of the path, and happily working further and further down the road. Soon, she was 100 yards away on the left side of the road when she threw a change of behavior, her head coming up and testing the air from side to side. It wasn’t the huge head snap that she usually presented, but I knew she was on to something. I looked over to SFC Shemp and said, “She is on odor,” and walked over to a big piece of concrete, sat down, and pulled out a bottle of water, taking a long drink.
Fama and I had been through this a thousand times, and I knew that it would take her somewhere from 4 seconds to 3 days to find the bomb, but she didn’t need my help. She would work it out, or die from dehydration, those were the only 2 possible outcomes. It went back to knowing that she was better at this than I could ever be. I just waited.
The hide was a tricky one, which I was glad to see. The wind was swirling and pockets of odor were collecting in places where the wind was calm. She eventually worked her was across the road, where the wind was taking the odor down the path. She had seen it before, and we could all see the light bulb come on above her head. There was a raise in the terrain at the edge of the road, which was pushing the odor above her head, so when she neared the location of the hide, the odor would go away, leading her back to the center of the road. She climbed up to the 4 foot ledge and planted her sweet ass as soon as she got up there.
Randy Johnson couldn’t throw a ball that far, so the three of us walked down the road to where Fama was waiting. SFC Shemp didn’t have anything to say. I paid Fama and had a big party. She was zooming around the rubble piles, swooping by occasionally to punch me in the gut with her tennis ball. I wasn’t even particularly happy, but I felt justified. There were no nerves or sigh of relief, as when we passed certification in Arizona. All we were doing was what we did every day. SFC Shemp had gone from mentor to adversary to stepping stone. We were just checking the block, a necessary procedure to move on with our career together. Block checked.