Security Forces airmen issued ‘best friend’

By Tech. Sgt. Emily F. Alley, 451st AEW Public Affairs

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — Outside the kennels at Kandahar Airfield in late March, several otherwise stoic security forces airmen gushed to their dogs, which jumped happily as they were released into the rocky yard.

The airmen stressed, however, that these are not pets. These are working dogs.

At Kandahar Airfield, military working dogs are trained to find explosives, drugs and landmines. Some are patrol and attack dogs. A few are trained to be off-leash special search dogs. The military dogs, unlike the civilian contracted dogs at KAF, search outside the wire to find mines. They work in dangerous conditions, just like their handlers, to keep the airfield safe.

The unit has also worked with the Afghan Air Wing to help the Afghans become more comfortable working with dogs. Culturally, they don’t embrace dogs the way Americans often do, said Staff Sgt. Jason Delacruz, a dog handler with the 466th Air Expeditionary Squadron, who is stationed at Cannon Air Force Base, where he is assigned to the 27th Special Operations Wing Security Forces MWD section.

He described his experience flying on a helicopter with Afghans and his black German shepherd, Candy. She was sitting very near the Afghans and he had to explain to them that she wouldn’t bite if they relaxed.

“If you’re nervous, she’ll get nervous,” Delacruz explained the phenomenon the handlers call running down the leash. “They feed off your emotion. They don’t understand what’s going on.”

With Americans, however, Delacruz explained that the dogs are often more popular than their handlers. When they walk around the base, people will remember a dog, but forget the name of the handler.

Staff Sgt. William Taulbee, from Eglin Air Force Base, said that he often feels bad when people try to approach his dog, Gaskon, and he has to ask them to step away. In airports, he puts a warning harness on the dog, a Belgian malinois, so people will know to avoid him. Taulbee often will take him for recreational runs, where he admits Gaskon will outrun him every time. He’s unofficially considered an airman, too, and has to stay in shape.

Military working dogs, for every branch of the military, are bred at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. As puppies, they go through a form of basic training in the same way airmen across the base do, but in addition are given a tattoo, a microchip and a name.

Delacruz pulled back Candy’s ear to show her identification number. She contentedly chomped at a fly that buzzed near her nose. Although he met her when they both began technical school at Lackland, he didn’t name her, but guessed the origin of her name after he saw her birth certificate.

“She was born February 14,” he said. “So she’s Valentine’s Candy.”

Each handler is matched with several potential working dogs when they enter the school. The dogs can fail out the same way the humans can, but if the whole group finishes the course the handler will be matched to the animal that best complements his temperament. Dogs have personalities the same way that people do, the handlers said, and some work together better than others. Over a career, however, and dog and handler may change partners.

Army Sgt. Brad Barstow, who works out of the same kennel, was recently matched to his black lab, Cody, who had recently completed a tour in Iraq.

“My dog has more time in a combat zone than I do,” he reflected.

Just as someone becomes familiar with the mannerisms of a close friend, the handlers described how they can tell when their dog is working, when he’s found something, and when he’s just being a dog. A team may work together for several years.

Traditionally, though unofficially, a dog is considered to outrank its handler by one grade. Delacruz added that, a few wars ago, military working dogs used to receive decorations and medals, although they no longer can. It was for the morale of the unit, but the dogs seem more content with a ball and a treat instead.