National Geographic : 2014 Jun
50 national geographic • june 2014 First a handler unleashes the dog and orders it to move toward a hidden “bird launcher,” a remote-controlled catapult loaded with a tennis ball. Adherence to voice commands and hand signals is crucial and often hard-won. When the dog comes close to the launcher, the handler triggers it, and the ball rockets into the air. The dog gives chase and returns the ball to the han- dler, who praises and pats the dog. As the dog gets better at following directions, the handler begins hiding items scented with all types of explosive materials in the surrounding terrain. By constantly moving the launcher and spreading scents both near and far, the dog be- comes adept at searching large areas and alert- ing the handler to everything that smells like an explosive. Eventually there’s no bird launcher, no tennis ball, just the scents. After finding each one, the dog is called back and rewarded with the Kong. And that’s what the process boils down to for a dog. An IED search is a game—identify a scent and get a toy. Zenit was a motivated seeker—and perfect partner. In the fall of 2010 the pair was select- ed for deployment and sent to Yuma Proving Ground for a final three-week, boot-camp-like crystallization of everything a handler and a dog need in a war zone and for one final test to prove they are ready. In a fake Afghan village a handler and his dog must search out a complicated array of IEDs. Some are scented for the dog to find. Others are unscented but left exposed for the handler to spot. If together they find more than 80 percent, the pair receives final approval to go “downrange.” “Jose was a bit of an East L.A. hood rat when he came into the corps,” says one of his super- visors, Sgt. Alfred Nieto. “But he and Zenit re- ally knew what they were doing—that wasn’t in doubt. I think they grew up a lot together.” After passing the training course at Yuma, the two boarded a transport, spent one night in Germany, and then flew to the Marines’ main base, Camp Leatherneck, in Afghanistan. From there Jose and Zenit were sent to Alcatraz. One moment they were in a fictional Afghan village in the desert of Arizona, the next they were in a real one, in Helmand Province, on their own. NOW IT’S THREE MONTHS LATER. They’re in the wadi outside Sangin surrounded by IEDs. The finds are rapid-fire, oscillating between Mul- rooney and Jose and Zenit. I got one ... Over here... Yup. Two years of training with your dog, three months in-country, every day with Zenit at your side, eating MREs, packing your gear—and your dog’s—humping, working, waiting, waking at midnight to make sure Zenit pees and poops in the designated spot, and suddenly everything, your life as a soldier and handler, your life as hood rat and outsider and striving human being, gets compressed into 15 minutes and 60 yards. Jose believes he’s onto the pattern. It seems the Taliban have buried IEDs at the access points to the wadi, assuming the troops would feel safer out of sight down in the dry riverbed than ex- posed in the open fields. It’s all happening so quickly now. He takes deep breaths to tame his excitement and maintain focus. A dog’s nose generally works best—or is most sensitive—in cool, calm weather. Odors become more volatile at higher temperatures, and wind can dilute and disperse them over a broad area, camouflaging their source. That’s the good thing: Down here there’s no wind. But it’s midday, bone-dry, and so fryingly hot Jose can taste the salt of his sweat as it trickles to his lips. Zenit is working the far bank, tuned to Jose’s commands, ears perked, feet scrambling, excited too. The dog is looking for all those scents it knows will yield his toy. Where are they? Over here a wide path leads from the berm into the wadi, and Zenit moves past it without any change in behavior. Jose follows at a dis- tance, gauging his own steps. The men behind them follow at a distance, marking a shaving- cream route based on Jose’s progress. At the path he veers from the most trafficked area and walks up a little rise. He takes a step, then another. Which is when the earth gives, and a deafening roar fills his ears. When his eyes open, Jose is lying on his back.