Special to American Forces Press Service
May 12, 2008 - Prompted by a few words of command by his handler, military working dog Charlie sprints ahead and attacks a simulated enemy during a training session here. For Charlie, a German shepherd deployed here, this attack is no less a priority than if it were a real insurgent attempting to harm coalition forces. Despite temperatures hovering near the century mark, Charlie makes no bones about pushing his paws to the limit for the seemingly small reward of some praise from his handler.
"The dog sees everything he does here as a game," said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Patrick Carroll, 732nd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron military working dog handler. "Even when the dog does have a big find, the dog never sees it as work. Seeking a reward and praise from their handler is the primary reason the dogs do the work for us."
While these military working dogs may be unable to comprehend their important contribution to the global war on terrorism while playing "the game," their capabilities are vital to the safety of coalition forces both inside and outside the base perimeter.
Air Force dog handlers at Kirkuk are assigned to either 506th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron or 732nd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron. Both squadrons have separate kennels and missions.
The 506th ESFS military working dog team conducts missions with the goal of protecting the more than 5,000 coalition forces personnel who reside at the base. While working inside base confines, 506th ESFS military working dogs conduct frequent patrols and assist security forces airmen at entry control points.
"Explosive detection is one of the main things we do with the dogs," said Air Force Staff Sgt. Kevin Nelson, 506th ESFS military working dog trainer. "The dogs are also trained to protect, deter, identify and apprehend any unauthorized personnel or contraband. Basically, the dogs prevent anything from getting on base that isn't supposed to be here."
The 732nd ESFS team typically works with the U.S. Army's 1st Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, during the brigade's missions outside the wire in the city of Kirkuk and surrounding areas.
Similar to the 506th ESFS, the 732nd ESFS military working dog team frequently is on the lookout for explosives during its missions. The team is composed of airmen filling "in-lieu of" taskings -- U.S. Army positions augmented by the Air Force.
"Everything we do in this capacity is outside the wire," said Carroll, who is deployed from Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii.
The 732nd ESFS team conducts a wide range of missions that include raids, cache searches and vehicle searches. The team's missions can last for more than 10 days outside the wire, Carroll said.
Carroll is not new to the military working dog career field, but he said he feels his current deployment is unlike anything he's ever seen.
"People can tell you what you're getting into, but after leaving that gate you realize it's different than anything you've ever seen," he said. "But I build on each and every mission, and it's been satisfying to help assist the Army mission with Air Force canines."
Carroll, who volunteered for the position, said soldiers have helped his transition into the Army's working environment.
"The Army has made me very comfortable incorporating the dogs into their mission," he said. "I've been working with canines for more than 12 years now, but nothing comes close to what I've seen here. Working outside the wire with the Army has been a very rewarding opportunity."
To accomplish such a wide variety of missions both on and off the base, dog handlers rely on the keen senses of their canines, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Andrew Esparza, 506th ESFS kennel master, said.
"A dog's scent is far more advanced than a human's," said Esparza, who is deployed from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. "In comparison, humans can't distinguish the individual ingredients when we smell a pizza. [Dogs] can smell the cheese, pepperoni, oregano and all of the other ingredients individually."
Each handler typically has his or her own assigned dog during a deployment. These dogs often travel with their handler from the United States, and spend much of their deployment patrolling and sharpening their skills.
Since handlers spend so many of their hours with the dogs, the commonly known bond between "man and his best friend" often forms, said Nelson, who is deployed from Hill Air Force Base, Utah.
"You can't help being attached to the dogs; they depend on you," he said. "You are completely responsible for the dog's health and safety. But you also always have a partner that will lay down their life for you - these dogs aren't scared of guns, knives or anything else. They are extremely loyal.
"For us, a dog is similar to another person on the team," the sergeant added. "The dog is treated the same as if they are an airman, because the dog won't be any good at his job if we don't take great care of him."
Carroll's dog sleeps in his bedroom, thus making their relationship an around-the-clock endeavor, seven days a week.
"There is definitely a bond that forms when you live with a dog every day for six months," Carroll said. "My dog, Jack, makes the time away from my family not as bad."
While military working dogs will never receive retirement checks or re-enlistment bonuses for their abilities to sniff out weapons caches, these canines are a vital and valued capability in the deployed environment.
"These dogs are basically tools that we use to help save lives," Carroll said. "I know for a fact that my dogs have found weapon caches that would've otherwise been used against coalition forces. Whether it's protecting the base from within or going off base, these dogs play a major part in helping to keep us safe."
(Air Force Senior Airman Eric Schloeffel serves with 506th Air Expeditionary Group Public Affairs.)