BAGHDAD – Soldiers trust their battle-buddies to have their backs in any situation. Regardless of the danger, it is a bond of war; a closeness that is rarely verbal, just understood through a simple nod, or pat on the back.
We see, or want to see, examples of emotional bonding throughout nature; humans are generally pack animals. We find comfort in others and therefore seek out our like-kind. Proof of this can be seen every day here in Iraq between military working dogs and the Soldiers they patrol alongside on a daily basis.
These highly trained and proficient canines and their military handlers perform to the highest standards in some of the most dangerous of situations.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Joel Townsend, and his partner, Atak, a five year old Belgian Malinois, are a military working dog team assigned to the K-9 Stryker Unit, 1st Cavalry Division, Multi-National Division-Baghdad. During their four months of working together here in Iraq, they measure success by finding enemy improvised explosive devices, weapon caches, and in some cases, the enemy themselves.
The teams strive to make things safer for the American Airmen and Soldiers, and the local public in the locations they visit and work at. If they have a find, they just made it safer for future Airmen, Soldiers, and locals. If they don’t find anything it is still a good day because no one died and they made it home safe.
“[Atak] is very proficient in explosive detection, and attack work, said the Still Water, Minn. native. For him, it’s not because he is vicious or malicious, it’s fun for these dogs, it is their mission. Finding a bomb or a bad guy that’s his reward and [Atak] is very good at what he does. I know he will never hesitate, every time we go out the wire I put my life in his paws, and so far we’ve been doing allright.”
Classified on paper as a sensitive item worth more than $80,000, Townsend treats his four legged partner much differently than just another piece of government equipment.
“I sweep him every morning for scratches, and bumps, anything out of the ordinary that could keep us out of the fight. We do [physical training] together every morning and we train everyday just keeping him proficient in his tasks,” Townsend said.
“We do have those times when he knows it’s OK for him to be a dog, he knows how I feel about him, and he shows me as well. It’s more than just a working relationship.”
Just watching these animals in action, it doesn’t take long to realize how specialized and difficult their training must be. Dogs like Atak receive and perform commands with clock-like precision for nothing more than a positive word or a pat on the back.
Military working dogs are trained to overcome typical dog “behavior,” explained Townsend. When passing by the entry to a dark building, most dogs will tuck their tail and turn away. A military dog is trained to enter that building, as the handler’s eyes and ears, to recon and alert his partner to whatever is inside.
‘It’s not just the training’ explains Townsend. “These guys are a little nuts to begin with.”
This ignites a barrage of long wet tongue kisses from Atak – his form of approval for the joke.
However, just getting to the training was the first hurdle. After joining the Air Force as a security force officer, Townsend said he spent three years as a “decoy” just trying to get in the dog handler program. While waiting from approval by his chain of command, he did whatever he could to be involved in the military working dog program. From cleaning kennels to “catching dogs,” a reference for being on the receiving end of bite training, Townsend paid his dues and earned his opportunity to join this elite team.
Now, as a full time handler Townsend continues to evolve with an ever expanding training regiment; from calling basic commands to how to correctly maneuver his companion safely in and out of vehicles, and down crowded streets.
All military handlers are required to attend a Military Working Dog Program Academy prior to deploying. Townsend and Atak were at the Yuma Proving Grounds in Yuma, Arizona, one of four programs. The program is the closest and most realistic deployment training experience for these dogs and their Soldier/Airmen counterparts.
“They simulate downrange so well, you and the dog feel like you are in Iraq,” remembers Townsend. “Pressure plate IEDs, buried weapons caches, one-five-five rounds, the villages, it is exactly what you are going to see over here. We are living together, working together, learning together – the training prepared us both for coming here. It’s an indescribable confidence that Atak and I gained.”
It is this confidence that reinforces the training once these teams step outside the wire. The dog’s attitude is a direct reflection of the handler’s explains Townsend.
“Everything I feel is transferred right down the leash. He knows when I am anxious, un-easy, excited, or upset; he feels that. These guys are the four-legged unsung heroes of this war – the last things you want to do as the handler is throw that off because you may not be having the best of days.”
From their everyday heroics, to the times they spend together as best friends, Townsend is adamant to show all Servicemembers that the opportunity to work alongside Atak is not just another aimless business relationship. It is an opportunity to trust the Soldier next to you.
“This is hands down the coolest job in the military; we have a bond with these dogs that are as attached to us as we are them. I have gone to war with this dog, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. I will go to the end of the world and back again for this dog, and I know he would do the same.
By Spc. Phillip Adam Turner