Somewhere out there, there is 40 pounds of explosives waiting to destroy an American life. On the battlefield, terrorism takes the form improvised explosive devices (IEDs). We used to refer to such things as booby traps (meaning a device used to catch the unwary); they have always had a profound psychological effect on military forces —and a devastating effect on civilian populations, as well. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the disposal of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, coalition forces remained in that country and assumed a new mission: nation building. The axiom used by former-president George H. W. Bush was, “If you break it, you own it.” George W. Bush broke it.
To combat these American forces, Iraqi and other insurgents used IEDs. It became the leading cause of death and injury among coalition forces in the region; 60% killed or injured in 2010, averaging 2.5 injuries per incident. In the case of those killed in action, injuries were so massive that there was no way to prevent their death. Among those military personnel that did survive IEDs, many also suffered significant brain damage from the concussion of the explosion. None of these people will ever return to their pre-war normalcy.
How did our troops survive in this environment? How did they even muster the courage to go on patrol, realizing that there was an IED out there just waiting for them? In the Marines, the squad looks after one another. Add to this mix the dog handlers augmenting each combat patrol. An experienced set of eyes and a dog’s ability to sniff out explosives will help to save the lives of Marines; not always, but in most cases. The cost: serious injury and death among dog handlers and their canine Marines. It is an amazing story.
On 8 February 2012, Lance Corporal Jarrett Hartley and his dog Blue accompanied 3rd Platoon, Lima Company, 3/3 into Loya Darvishan, Southern Helmand Province. While passing through a tiny village, Afghan National Army partners stopped to search a suspicious compound. They found several mortar castings; enough to prompt a more detailed search of surrounding compounds. The patrol avoided adjacent roads due to the increased threat of IEDs; they opted instead to cross into a nearby field, which took them through an arid canal. However, before the Marines entered the canal, Corporal Hartley noticed a darker patch of dirt that looked recently disturbed.
Hartley halted the patrol and sent Blue to sniff for explosives. Moments later the Labrador retriever laid down next to the area, confirming the presence of an IED. He had just saved several of a dozen lives. Hartley remarked, “While we’re on patrol, everyone looks to Blue and me to keep them safe. If we mess up, my friends will be blown up—because of my mistake.” Hartley was then 21-years old, a rifleman by training, and a volunteer to become a dog handler. But why would this young man place himself into such a dangerous position? Easy enough, he said … “I wanted to help protect Marines from getting hurt.”
Hartley’s previous tour in Helmand Province was running and gunning for insurgents as a member of his platoon. After training as a dog handler, his responsibilities changed. He remained with his platoon, but now he had to think and care for two; now he was carrying a much heavier responsibility on his shoulders. Marine and dog have become IED hunters; they do everything together, from patrolling to boarding helicopters for movement to other areas of the province. Together, the screen pedestrians, the work vehicle checkpoints, and they rest together after exhausting patrols. They experience the biting sandstorms, the bitter cold, and the scorching heat of the summer months. Through it all, Blue seems to realize that he has an awesome responsibility, too. He acts as if he understands that he is a front line defense against death and serious injury.
Nevertheless, the dogs are dogs and they like to goof off just as all dogs like to goof off. They like to jump in pools of water, chase other animals, and they get tired. Some times the animals are playful, other times they are moody. They are a challenge to their handlers, but they are saving lives and some times, at great cost to themselves.
Recently, an eight-year old Belgian Malinois named Lucca accepted her medical discharge from the U. S. Marine Corps and made her way back home to live with her first handler, Gunnery Sergeant Chris Willingham in Finland. As she hobbled through Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport with her handler, Marine Corporal Juan Rodriguez, human passengers stood and applauded the hero dog that lost her leg while looking out for her fellow Marines. On that day, Lucca detected a buried explosive, alerted her Marines, and immediately began to search for other explosives. What she did not know was that the enemy had booby-trapped the IED. When the IED exploded, Corporal Rodriguez could hear her screaming and yelping. He ran to her and began to administer life saving first aid. “It was rough,” Rodriguez said. (See Notes 1, 2)
In between combat patrols, a dog handler is likely to play with their dog; playing fetch is one popular pass time and it is here that these animals provide another invaluable service; they boost the moral among fellow Marines and each of these dogs finally finds a way into their hearts. No, they are not pets. They are highly skilled working animals. No, they are not just government property. They are life savers, morale boosters, and genuine American heroes.
- Writer Maria Goodavage told Lucca’s story in an excellent book titled Top Dog: The Story of Marine Hero Lucca. You can find the book at Amazon.
- Picture of Lucca and GySgt Willingham by Los Angeles Times photojournalist Gary Friedman