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Elise Becker was in Azerbaijan last year to assess a de-mining program.
Elise Becker was in Azerbaijan last year to assess a de-mining program. (Marshall Legacy Institute)

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By Sandra McElwaine
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 16, 2008

Elise Becker's job is hardly typical: It involves schoolchildren, dogs and land mines. As a program director for the Marshall Legacy Institute in Arlington, she is responsible for managing the K9 Demining Corps, which provides highly skilled Belgian shepherds to sniff out mines in some of the most mine-polluted places on the planet: Iraq, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Lebanon.

The dogs are trained at a special facility in Texas and travel with their trainer in "six-packs" to destinations around the globe. Becker's involvement with kids comes through the Children Against Mines Program (CHAMPS), an organization that teaches students how people and dogs together can create a safer world. The kids help raise money for the dog de-mining program.

Becker, a 24-year-old Virginia native, graduated from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., and won a year-long fellowship at the U.S. State Department. She worked with a number of nonprofit groups before ending up at the Marshall Legacy Institute, whose mission is to extend the vision of Gen. George C. Marshall, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, by helping war-torn countries return to normalcy.

Becker's passion dates from a trip last year to Senegal, where she visited a village whose cashew field was full of mines. Each day the villagers had to decide whether they would starve or harvest the nuts and risk getting maimed to provide for their families. "A decision no one would ever want to make," Becker says. "That's when I decided to do everything I could to ensure these hidden killers are removed from the soil."

This is not a usual job.

No, it is not. We're a small organization. We've got four people and an intern, so I'm the program manager, and I do manage our mine-detection dog programs. I do a lot of other things, too. I do a little bit of fundraising; right now we're trying to get donations for this embroidery machine that we're sending to Azerbaijan. We've started a survivors assistance program there, where we're helping to fund and grow this workshop that trains land mine survivors and their family members in embroidery and carpet weaving, and basically giving them vocational skills.

What place is the worst when it comes to land mines?

Afghanistan is one of the worst places that we work in. I think right now it's the most dangerous place. There's a lot of re-mining taking place in the countryside.

Do some aspects of your job upset you?


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