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Soldiers find loyal comrades in war dogs

/ Source: The Associated Press

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.

Cared for like soldiers

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.

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.

Rigorously trained

Military dogs must be in top condition to perform the duties they’re assigned. And training is rigorous.

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.

Weapons of war

The military estimates spending six months and $25,000 to buy, feed, train and care for the average dog. They are tended by 440 Army veterinarians worldwide.

The dogs get two physical exams each year, more often than most people. They get blood tests, X-rays and electrocardiograms.

When dogs break teeth with their powerful bites, military vets sometimes do root canals to save the teeth. “Here we treat them, because that’s part of that dog’s equipment: to use his teeth,” says Dr. Lorraine Linn, a dog surgeon at Lackland.

Dogs have been weapons of war since ancient times. Thousands were enlisted in this country’s fights in World Wars I and II and in Vietnam. Dogs cannot be awarded medals under military protocol, but commanders sometimes honor them unofficially.

Care for wounded military dogs was more limited in earlier wars. And euthanasia typically awaited at the close of their careers — but that, too, is changing.

Retiring from service

Since 2000, a law allows many to be adopted by police departments, former handlers and others if the dogs are placid enough.

Tech. Sgt. Jamie Dana’s German shepherd Rex was plenty friendly but also young and healthy. The military didn’t want to let him go.

When Rex visited her a couple weeks later at the hospital, she whistled for him and he jumped on her bed. Dana’s days as a soldier were over, but she missed her pal.

Friends and family petitioned Congress, and a law was finally signed to allow still able dogs to be adopted under unusual circumstances.

Now, Rex lives on a farm in Smethport, Pa., with Dana, who believes the dog wasn’t really meant for a soldier’s life.

“He loves everybody,” she says. “He sleeps beside my bed.”

Wartime casualties

Other dogs in the war zone aren’t so lucky. Though no careful count is kept, Army vet Lt. Col. Michael Lagutchik, who supervises care at Lackland, believes about 10 dogs have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Injuries are common among the dogs. They are cut or scraped, often on their paws. They are bitten by spiders or stung by scorpions. Their eyes and ears are irritated by blowing sand.

The most common injury is probably overheating from the desert sun, which can sometimes spur a dangerous stomach condition called bloat.

“We went out and played ball, pretty much hung out,” Cannon says. “Mainly, we didn’t do any work at all. ‘Vacation’ is a good word for it.”

Less often, dogs on a mission get shot or bombed. Lackland trainer Trapanger Stephens, who did duty in Iraq, remembers seeing a vet rescue a shot dog with a breathing tube right in the field. The vet did surgery then and there.

Cpl. Megan Leavey and her dog ended up back at Camp Pendleton when another homemade bomb exploded in Ramadi. She got a concussion, and the animal hurt its shoulder. The dog underwent a regimen familiar to athletes: icing, heating, stretching, and motion exercises.

Dogs may wear bulletproof vests or booties to cushion their pads. They sometimes wear doggie goggles — called “doggles” — to keep out blowing sand. However, most handlers have their dogs go natural for fear of overheating.

Regardless of the dangers, the dogs are fearless. For them, checking a road for bombs means a fun walk, their handlers say. “They like what they do,” insists Poelaert, who has returned to Exeter, N.H.

These days, he’s trying to move beyond memories of the Ramadi explosion, which killed dozens of people, including his best friend, fellow handler Adam Cann.

One image still inspires him, though: the sight of Cann’s wounded dog stretched over his body, as if to protect him.