The Guardians

By Glen Finland
Sunday, September 11, 2005

On a hot June morning, federal K-9 officer Sgt. Isaac Ho'opi'i is speeding along Old Dominion Drive in McLean on the way to his job at the Pentagon when a deer jumps out and bangs into the right side of his police cruiser. The deer is hit in the shoulder, flips around, then regains her footing and bounds back into a leafy camouflage of trees and kudzu.

Ho'opi'i (pronounced HO-oh-PEE-ee) pulls off the road to check his banged up side-view mirror and calls out to the reporter who has been following him, "Hey, how's the deer?"

"I don't think you killed her," says the reporter, coming over to look at the damage. "How's the car?"

Ho'opi'i fiddles with his bent mirror and shrugs. "I'm not worried about the car," he says. He looks off into the thick tangle of woods. "I was afraid I hurt the deer."

Staring at the mangled mirror, the reporter says, "That thing could've gone through your windshield, could have killed you . . ."

The officer laughs, collapsing his worried look into a reassuring grin. At 5-foot-10 and 260 pounds, Isaac Ho'opi'i is a husky Hawaiian whose shoulders carry the strength of a Samoan wrestler. His large hands hang loose beside the weapon at his side, and his voice has the easygoing rhythm of the 50th state. "Well, a lot of things could have happened," he says, "but I don't deal in the couldas."

He climbs back into his cruiser and continues on his way.

Ten minutes later, Arlington's streets are filled with commuters and day laborers. Overhead, long green Army helicopters drone their way toward the Pentagon's heliport. In the back of the cruiser, a German shepherd prowls behind the metal screen separating the front and rear seats. Six-year old Marko bangs his tail hard against the seat, unshaken by the collision with the deer. The dog is protective of Ho'opi'i, but seems playful: one moment rolling on his back; the next, freezing statue-perfect at Sit!

In the trunk Ho'opi'i carries a three-gallon jug of water for the dog and two large photographs: a 1990s government-issue aerial view of the sprawling Pentagon and an "after" shot of the blackened rubble immediately following September 11, 2001. Rescue vehicles and cranes are scattered at the edges and an enormous American flag hangs vertically from the rooftop toward the ground.

"See all those trees?" Ho'opi'i points to a healthy stand of greenery opposite the heliport in the "before" shot. He remembers those trees because less than 15 minutes before the plane slammed into the building, he and his first canine partner had been standing there on duty. "The trees disintegrated the moment the plane hit."

At 8:30 on the morning of September 11, 2001, Pentagon Police Department Officer Isaac Ho'opi'i opened the back door of his car to let his big dog, Vito, out for a walk. Crisscrossing the Pentagon's manicured green lawn with his nose to the ground, the well-trained, black-and-red shepherd was unfazed by the noisy jets passing overhead on the way to and from nearby Reagan National Airport. Ho'opi'i followed Vito, his partner of three years, onto the tarmac of the heliport to let the dog sniff around for the smell of explosives.

Ho'opi'i says that headquarters had radioed him earlier that morning to let him know a high-ranking official was due to chopper in any minute. After Vito's inspection gave the all-clear, they climbed into the unmarked cruiser and headed away from the Pentagon to take Vito to the vet. Ho'opi'i recalls looking in his rearview mirror at Vito stretched out across the back seat and saying, "Good boy." With the sun dancing in silver slants between the Potomac River and the white monuments, it was just another spectacular September morning in Washington. And for the moment, Ho'opi'i knew, the Pentagon was safe.

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