Four-legged war vets get top care
SAN ANTONIO, Texas (AP)—When he came to, the Marine’s arm hung lamely. It was broken by ball bearings hurled so hard from a suicide bomb that they also became embedded in his gun. Yet Brendan Poelaert’s thoughts quickly turned to his patrol dog.
The powerful Belgian Malinois named Flapoor had served him as partner and protector for the past four months in Iraq. Now, the dog staggered a few steps along the Ramadi street, then stared blankly. Blood poured from his chest.
“I didn’t care about my injuries, my arm,” his handler says. “I’m telling the medic, ‘I got to get my dog to the vet!”’
About 2,000 of these working dogs confront danger beside American soldiers, largely in the Middle East.
With noses that detect scents up to a third of a mile away, many sniff for explosives in Iraq. Their numbers have been growing about 20 percent a year since the terrorist attacks of 2001, says Air Force Capt. Jeffrey McKamey, who helps run the program.
In doing their jobs, dozens of these dogs have also become war wounded—scorched by the desert, slashed by broken glass, pelted by stray bullets, pounded by roadside bombs.
Their services are so valued, though, that wounded dogs are treated much like wounded troops. “They are cared for as well as any soldier,” insists Senior Airman Ronald A. Harden, a dog handler in Iraq.
Their first aid comes out of doggy field kits bearing everything from medicine to syringes. Some are evacuated to military veterinary centers hundreds of miles away and even to Germany and the United States for rehabilitation. Many recover and return to duty.
On the day of the Ramadi blast in January 2006, Poelaert, trained in veterinary first aid, began care as soon as both were loaded into an SUV. He pressed his finger to his dog’s chest to stop him from bleeding to death.
When they reached the base camp, a medic with veterinary training took over, starting Flapoor on an IV. Poelaert departed reluctantly for his own surgery.
Flapoor—the name means “droopy-eared” in the Dutch language of his homeland—would eventually go to Baghdad for more care of his punctured lung and belly wounds. He’d later rejoin his handler and fly in a cargo plane to the U.S. for physical rehab.
Healing under the California sun at Camp Pendleton, Flapoor is now back to his usual self in most ways: fast, friendly, eager-to-please. But he still suffers a sort of canine PTSD. “He’s really jumpy around loud noises now,” Poelaert says.
Military dogs must be in top condition to perform the duties they’re assigned. And training is rigorous.
Dogs take their basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where they learn to tolerate the crack of gunfire and sputter of helicopters. They are trained to sniff for explosives on command, freezing and staring at suspicious objects.
Merely baring their teeth, they can cow a crowd. Commanded to strike, they can easily flatten a big man with one leap, flying like a 50-pound sand bag tossed from a truck.
Smart and strong Malinois and shepherds predominate, but other breeds are trained too. Even small dogs, like beagles or poodles, are occasionally taught to detect explosives in submarines and other close quarters.
In Iraq, the demand for explosives-finding dogs has escalated. They lead patrols with their handlers in tow, sniffing bags and other suspicious objects along the way.
The bombs have bulked up in past months, putting dogs and handlers at more risk. To protect handlers, some dogs are now trained to wear backpacks with radios and respond to remote voice commands.
“As much as I love these dogs, their job is to take a bullet for me,” says trainer Sgt. Douglas Timberlake.
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