By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 29, 2009
Rambo sounds the warning as soon as the kennel door at Bolling Air Force Base creaks open, a ferocious, thunderous bark as loud and persistent as a jackhammer. In the next stalls, Rocky goes berserk, spinning in tight circles like a top, and Jess, ears perked, bounces excitedly up and down.
Then there's Timi. He stays silent, his head bowed, ears bent. He stands motionless, averting his gaze.
Timi has always been the oddball of the kennel in Southwest Washington, "the quirky one," said Air Force Staff Sgt. Timothy Evans, his trainer. The dog is also an Iraq war veteran, and according to his medical file, he has nightmares "characterized by violent kicking." His veterinarian says he has had "readjustment issues" since coming home -- although not severe enough to prevent him from returning to the field.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan aren't just forcing thousands of soldiers and Marines to deploy for two and three tours. The sacrifice is being shared by a key, and growing, part of the U.S. military: highly trained German shepherds and Belgian Malinois. In a war with no front lines, they have become valuable at sniffing out makeshift bombs, which cause most U.S. casualties.
The use of dogs in war, whether as scouts, sentries or trackers, goes back hundreds of years. But since Sept. 11, 2001, the Defense Department has increased the number of military dogs from 1,320 to 2,025, and many have served multiple tours.
Some service members say the dogs' ability to sniff out bombs and insurgents makes them as indispensable as a rifle or flak jacket. And they believe that the dogs' heroism should be rewarded.
The U.S. War Dogs Association is trying to persuade the Pentagon to create a medal for dogs. Another group is pushing for a military working dog memorial in the Washington area. And the Humane Society, which criticized the Pentagon during the Vietnam War, when many dogs were left behind or euthanized, has credited the military with working to find retirement homes for them.
Like new recruits, the dogs enter the military through boot camp, where they learn the canine version of soldiering: basic obedience and how to detect explosives, navigate obstacle courses and sneak up on a house without barking. They are exposed to the rat-tat-tat of rifles, loud noises and explosions so they can learn to stay cool under fire. Although they are taught to bite and hold the enemy, they are not trained to kill, officials said. By the time they are ready to hit the battlefield, the Pentagon has invested $15,000 in each dog.
It's impossible to estimate how many lives the dogs have saved, said Master Sgt. Robert Tremmel, manager of the Air Force's working dogs program at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where the dogs -- and dog trainers from different branches of the military -- are initially trained.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, "they're finding ammunition," he said. "They're finding weapons -- AK-47s and caches and a lot of unexploded ordnance. . . . They're invaluable."
But there have also been numerous accounts of dogs being used to intimidate detainees during interrogations in Iraq and elsewhere. One of the most notorious photos from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal was of a dog handler holding a dog inches from a detainee's face. The handler was one of two soldiers convicted of using dogs to intimidate detainees.
And officials at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, began using dogs to intimidate detainees during interrogations in late 2002, after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld approved techniques that used "detainees' individual phobias [such as fear of dogs] to induce stress," according to a military memo Rumsfeld signed in December 2002.
At Andrews Air Force Base, which has the largest K-9 unit in the region, two dog teams recently deployed. In addition to military dogs, 38 contractor dog teams are in Afghanistan and about 140 dogs across Iraq. Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, 11 military dogs have been killed in combat, Tremmel said.
Former Air Force Tech Sgt. Harvey Holt and his dog, Jackson (officially it's "Jjackson," with the double "J" signifying that he was bred by the Defense Department), were pinned down by sniper fire in 2006 while on patrol outside Baquba, north of Baghdad. During a break in the fire, he took his dog, a Belgian Malinois, through the field to find the sniper. Jackson picked up a scent, sprinted toward a bale of hay, jumped in head first and pulled the sniper out by his calf, Holt said.
Like other handlers, Holt, who is now a police officer in Indiana, was often attached to many different units, depending on who needed a canine's special capabilities. As a result, Holt didn't form the "band of brothers" bonds with other soldiers, but rather with his dog. On cold nights, they shared a sleeping bag.
"We were two heads poking out of the bag," he said. "If it weren't for the dog, I probably wouldn't have made it emotionally there. The bond and trust I had in that dog was more than with any human being." After Holt handed Jackson off to the next handler, he came to miss him so much that he got a tattoo of Jackson on his left leg.
During his six-month tour in Iraq last year, Timi, a 5-year-old German shepherd, found about 100 pounds of explosive material, Evans said, including a 130mm shell full of homemade explosives.
Timi "is all business," he said. "A real foot soldier." Tough and no-nonsense, he has always been more reserved than the other dogs. He took his time eating. He seemed to look at people out of the corners of his eyes, Evans said, following them. "He's calculating."
But a few months into the deployment, Timi started thrashing about in his sleep, Evans said.
"It was almost like he was having a seizure in his sleep," Evans said. "This was not like he was chasing a little bunny rabbit. He was kicking the . . . kennel down. . . . When I got him out of it, he'd have that bewildered look, and it would take him a minute to know where he was. Then he'd fall back asleep, and it would happen again and again."
For two years, Walter Burghardt, chief of behavioral medicine at the Department of Defense Military Working Dog Veterinary Service, has been studying the effects of combat on dogs. Although he doesn't like to use the term post-traumatic stress disorder with dogs, war can affect them emotionally, he said. In some cases, antidepressants have worked, he said, as have more playtime and more time performing the tasks they were trained to do.
Timi's episodes did not affect his ability to work, which is when he seemed happiest, Evans said. Since coming home, Timi has shown great progress, although in the kennel he is more subdued than the others.
Still, Timi is one of the stars at Bolling, and his workload in the past several months has included trips to Camp David for the former president, to Paris for the former first lady and to New York in advance of an appearance by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on the "Late Show With David Letterman," Evans said.
Now he's on his way back to Iraq, the second of what could be several tours. Army Capt. Amos Peterson, his veterinarian, signed off on Timi's ability to deploy.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Brandon L. Gaines, his new handler, said there is no one he would rather deploy with.
"It's written all over him," he said of Timi. "He's ready to go back."
Staff writer Josh White contributed to this report.