2nd BCT, 4th Inf. Div.
CAMP ECHO, Iraq – When service members are deployed and conducting patrols, they rely on their battle buddies to keep them safe and offer them companionship. Some believe there is no better battle buddy than man’s best friend.
Military dogs have served in the U.S. Armed Forces and deployed to combat theaters since World War I and continue to protect service members and civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The K9 team of Marines, Soldiers and dogs attached to Special Troops Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division provide an extra level of vigilance and threat-detecting capabilities to the Warhorse Brigade, as well as a level of camaraderie that helps the service members feel more at home.
Each dog is trained to find explosives and weapons caches, as well as providing force protection and threat-seeking capabilities to the mission. Their very presence also brings a level of psychological deterrence to anyone considering an attack or any other threatening actions.
These loyal dogs search roadways, vehicles, open areas and buildings for threats. They are attached to units conducting patrol missions and assist with local security at Camp Echo, said Marine Staff Sgt. Chris Willingham, Security Battalion military working dog kennel master, based out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., and attached to the STB.
“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 check points,” said Willingham.”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.”
All dog handlers and their dogs receive time to bond and get to know each other as they train together to certify as a team prior to deployment.
Each of the four dog teams consists of a dog handler and his dog. The dog and handler work together, sleep together and play together; they are always with one another. Each team forms a tight bond, and all together, the four dogs and four handlers make up an impressive, yet companionable K9 unit. As the dog handlers say, each of the dogs appropriately outranks the handler by one grade.
Marine Gunnery Sgt. Lucca
“She’s a Marine as well. She actually outranks me. I have to stand at parade rest for her,” joked Willingham. His dog is named Marine Gunnery Sgt. Lucca, and she is a mix of Belgian Malinois and German Shepherd. “Lucca is smart, easy to train, extremely loyal and has a lot of personality.” They deployed together to Iraq in October 2008.
Willingham said that when a dog is in the front of a walking patrol and spots an improvised explosive device or other threat, he feels a great deal of job satisfaction. Willingham said he is proud of Lucca, knowing that her actions and capabilities can save the lives of service members and civilians.
Willingham, who hails from Tuscaloosa, Ala., has been involved with training approximately 50 different dog handlers and dogs and has been paired with two different dogs during his career.
He has served in the Marines for 10 years and as a dog handler for nine. Lucca entered the military program more than two years ago and was quickly paired with Willingham.
“We’ve got a lot of loyalty between us. 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.
She relished the attention, resting a paw upon his hand, grinning and showing off her large teeth. As he spoke, she constantly shifted her gaze between watching their surroundings and glancing at her handler.
“When you hear ‘man’s best friend’ you think of a dog that’s loyal and obedient. No matter what kind of day you might have, the dog is going to be there for you and vice versa, you’re always there for the dog,” said Willingham.
“The best part of being a dog handler is kind of two-fold. 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 the troops,” said Willingham.
To the observer, it is obvious they share a strong bond and comfortable relationship.
When asked why he became a dog handler he replied with a laugh, “If someone told you you’d get paid to play with dogs, wouldn’t you take the job?”
Army Staff Sgt. Buddy
“He’s a very happy-go-lucky guy and very friendly,” said Army Sgt. Tyler Barriere, military working dog handler, 163rd Military Police Detachment, based out of Fort Campbell, Ky., and attached to the STB. He added, however, that Army Staff Sgt. Buddy can be aggressive when needed, and any terrorist he found “would be pretty scared to see this 91-pound Belgian Malinois chasing after them.”
Buddy’s main job is to protect Soldiers and civilians against roadside bombs and thwart terrorist efforts by locating weapons caches. But in addition to being an explosive detection dog, Buddy is trained as an 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 a dog handler in the Army for two years. This is their first deployment together, arriving in Iraq in September 2008. Barriere comes from Ithaca, N.Y.
“Good boy!” exclaimed Barriere, gently slapping Buddy’s sides. The encouragement caused his long tail to whip back and forth happily. Buddy then sprinted after a thrown dog toy, catching it midair, before strolling back, his tail wagging even faster in a black and tan blur.
“I love being a dog handler,” said Barriere, with a huge smile looking at his dog. “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 Staff Sgt. Ruby
“She’s a lovable dog,” said Army Sgt. Troy Stiner, military working dog handler, 163rd MP Det., based out of Fort Campbell, and attached to the STB. Army Staff Sgt. Ruby is also a Belgian Malinois explosive detection and attack dog.
Ruby has been in the Army for seven years, as has Stiner; though he has only been a dog handler for more than two of those years. They have been together for more than a year, and this is their first deployment together.
“We’ve got a pretty good relationship. We’ve been through a lot together. 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,” said Stiner, looking at his dog.
She wagged her tail, eager to be petted. Her calm and friendly demeanor 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 can latch on with her strong jaws until ordered by her handler to release, sometimes held hanging in the air only by her tight grip.
Stiner said he and his dog are here to help save Soldiers’ and civilians’ lives by finding an IED before it detonates, locating weapons caches and finding terrorists before they can attack.
“She always wants to go to work. She’s got a high drive for it,” said Stiner, proudly.
“I love my job. It’s the best job in the military. No matter how mad I am about something that went wrong that day, I come home and she’s always wagging her tail, happy to see me,” said Stiner, who calls Pittsburgh home.
Marine Sgt. Posha
“He might not know it, but his job here is to save my life and the lives of others,” said Marine Cpl. William Soutra, military working dog handler, Security Battalion, based out of Camp Pendleton, and attached to the STB.
He has been a dog handler for more than two years, the same amount of time Marine Sgt. Posha has been serving. Soutra and his German Shepherd deployed together in October 2008.
He said he loves being able to live with his dog and constantly be together, though he does like to share Posha with others to help brighten their days.
“Dogs are celebrities during deployment. 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,” said Soutra, who comes from Worcester, Mass.
The Soldiers they get attached to for missions love to have Posha along, added Soutra. Not only is there an additional security and force protection element, but it brings enjoyment to the troops, especially those at the smaller bases.
Although 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. 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 giving a gentle slap and petting his dog, which showed his appreciation by licking Soutra’s hand.
“He depends on me for the everyday things, whether it be food, water or taking him out to play and (exercise),” said Soutra. Posha, in turn, watches Soutra’s back.
He said he is glad to be Posha’s handler and loves his job. The two lounged together, Posha still chomping on his dog toy after a round of fetch. A ready smile came to Soutra’s face whenever he looked at his dog.
“Growing up, I always asked my mother for a dog, and she told me I could never have a dog because I was too much to handle. I told her that I was going to join the Marine Corps and see if they’d give me a dog. A couple of years later, here we are,” he said with a laugh.
He said he had no regrets about his choice. All the other handlers agreed with the sentiment. To all of them, it’s the best job in the military, and they work with the best dogs in the military.
Photo: Sgt. Rodney Foliente
By Sgt. Rodney Foliente