By Army Sgt. Rodney Foliente
Special to American Forces Press Service
Jan. 27, 2009 - When servicemembers are deployed and conducting patrols, they rely on their "battle buddies" for safety and companionship. Military dogs have served in the U.S. armed forces and deployed to combat theaters since World War I, and continue to protect servicemembers and civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq today.
The K9 team of Marines, soldiers and dogs attached to the 4th Infantry Division's Special Troops Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, bring an extra level of vigilance and threat-detecting capabilities brigade, as well as camaraderie to the servicemembers here.
The dogs are attached to units conducting patrol missions and assist with local security, Marine Staff Sgt. Chris Willingham, the security battalion's military working dog kennel master, said.
"We've conducted joint dismounted patrols with the [Iraqi security forces], open-area searches and conducted training to show how dogs can be implemented at the Iraqi checkpoints," Willingham said. "They have a newfound respect when they see our dogs work, the dogs in training, their obedience, and see what they can do -- what they bring to the fight."
Each dog is trained to find explosives and weapons caches. They search roadways, vehicles, open areas and buildings for threats. Their presence also brings a level of psychological deterrence to anyone considering an attack, he explained.
Each of the four dog teams here comprises a dog handler and his dog. They work, sleep and play together, and are rarely apart.
Willingham and his dog, Marine Gunnery Sgt. Lucca, a Belgian Malinois and German shepherd mix, deployed together to Iraq in October. "She's a Marine as well. She actually outranks me. I have to stand at parade rest for her," Willingham joked.
"Lucca is smart, easy to train, extremely loyal and has a lot of personality," he added. Willingham said he is proud of Lucca, knowing that her actions and capabilities can save the lives of servicemembers and civilians.
Willingham, who hails from Tuscaloosa, Ala., has trained about 50 different dog handlers and dogs, but has worked with only two different dogs during his career. He and Lucca were paired more than two years ago.
"We've got a lot of loyalty between us," he said. "We've been together for two deployments now, and she saved my life a couple of times, so I've definitely got a tight bond with this dog," he said affectionately, scratching and petting Lucca.
"The best part of being a dog handler is kind of two-fold," Willingham said. "When it's time to work, the implications of these dogs being successful means that soldiers' lives are being saved. On the other hand, in between missions, it's good to just let the dog be a dog, run around and bring a piece of home to the troops that you're supporting. The dogs act as a big morale boost for the troops."
Army Sgt. Tyler Barriere, a military working dog handler for the 163rd Military Police Detachment, said his dog, Army Staff Sgt. Buddy, is happy-go-lucky guy and friendly. But Buddy can be aggressive when needed, he added, and any terrorist he found "would be pretty scared to see this 91-pound Belgian Malinois chasing after them."
Buddy is an explosive detection and attack dog, able to run down suspects and hold them for detention.
Buddy plopped down next to Barriere after leaping through windows during a search demonstration. Buddy has served for six years, and Barriere has been an Army dog handler for two. They arrived in Iraq in September.
"I love being a dog handler," Barriere said. "I have a great relationship with Buddy. We spend all our time together, and we've got a good bond. He's always there if I come back from a stressful day, and he cheers me up. There can't be anything better than that."
Army Sgt. Troy Stiner, another military working dog handler for the 163rd Military Police Detachment, is paired with Staff Sgt. Ruby, a Belgian Malinois explosive detection and attack dog.
Ruby has been in the Army for seven years, as has Stiner, who has been a dog handler for more than two of those years. This is their first deployment together.
"We've got a pretty good relationship. We've been through a lot together," Stiner said. "We depend on each other a lot. You get a stronger bond working with a dog than you do with another soldier. The dog depends on you for its survival down here, and you also depend on the dog to make sure you don't get hurt on missions."
Ruby's calm and friendly demeanor was a stark contrast from moments earlier, when she demonstrated her attack capabilities, leaping through the air in a flurry of teeth and claws to chomp down on another trainer's protected arms. She latched on with her strong jaws until ordered by her handler to release, sometimes held hanging in the air only by her tight grip.
"She always wants to go to work. She's got a high drive for it," Stiner said.
Marine Cpl. William Soutra, a military working dog handler for the security battalion, and his dog, Marine Sgt. Posha, deployed together in October.
"He might not know it, but his job here is to save my life and the lives of others," Soutra said.
Soutra said he loves being able to live with his German shepherd and constantly be together, though he does like to share Posha with others to help brighten their days.
"Dogs are celebrities during deployment," Soutra said. "Just taking him out in everyday life, whether it be the [post exchange] or laundry, everyone that walks by can't help but smile. I try to give everyone the benefit to pet him, because it brings new life to people."
The soldiers they are assigned to for missions love to have Posha along, Soutra said. Not only is there an additional security and force protection element, but it brings enjoyment to the troops, especially those at the smaller bases.
Though this is their first deployment together, Soutra said, the two of them make a great team.
"Me and Posha, I feel like we're the same," he said. "I've worked with four dogs. Posha's been a rough dog to other [dog handlers] in the past, but I got the opportunity to pick him up after my last deployment, and we click like I think nobody else has.
"We fit well together," he said petting his dog.
(Army Sgt. Rodney Foliente serves with the 4th Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team.)