National Geographic : 2014 Jun
Dogs of War 51 All he can see is the sky. He’s been blown 20 feet back into the wadi. He knows exactly what’s happening but can’t comprehend any of it. His mouth is full of dirt, and his body yowls, as if on fire. He can’t breathe. Mulrooney is the first to his side and cuts off his vest. Jose keeps repeating, “I fucked up. Do I still have my legs?” And then: “Where’s Zenit?” Mulrooney says, “You’re good, man, you’re going to be fine.” There’s a procedure out here when someone gets “got”—that’s what the men call a hit like this. The marines secure the area; the medic puts a T-POD, a tourniquet at the waist to stanch the bleeding, on Jose; Buyes calls in a chopper; and everyone works to beat the “golden hour,” the time within which the military endeavors to get a wounded soldier off the battlefield to increase his odds of survival. But the closest chopper is already ferrying an- other wounded marine out of the area and takes two hours to arrive. Jose has lost a lot of blood but somehow stays conscious, asking again for Zenit. The dog, initially 20 feet from the blast, knows something has gone wrong. Zenit lies down next to Jose, his ears pinned to his head, which he lays on his paws. He stays there as they work to save Jose before the chopper arrives. According to protocol, both handler and dog are loaded on board and whisked from the spot. A FARAWAY LIGHT—Jose remembers that. He re- members letting himself slip toward it, overcome by a very tired feeling. This was on the chopper. He remembers sensing Zenit nearby. He remem- bers thinking about his three younger sisters and brother (never having had role models himself, he wonders who will be theirs), his fiancée (how will she find out?), and then his sister who died (is he about to see her?). He remembers turning from the faraway light, shaking off sleep, and reentering his body. What followed wasn’t easy. He woke up in Germany, and ten days later he woke up again in Walter Reed hospital. There were 12 opera- tions, a move to the Naval Medical Center in San Diego. Both legs had to be amputated above the knee. He slept 20 hours a day for a month. He dreamed that someone performed experiments on him with dolphins. He woke thrashing, calling for Zenit, only to learn that N103 hadn’t accompanied him home, had been reassigned to a new handler, also by protocol. “I was furious,” Jose says. “And jealous. I never blamed Zenit for what happened. We were a team. If it was anyone’s fault, it was my own. I just wanted my dog.” In different ways, it seemed, they were both itemized gear, until one of them didn’t work anymore. Back in Afghanistan, Zenit had been returned to Camp Leatherneck, where he soon went through what’s called a validation trial with another handler and then went on more than 50 foot patrols with other units. He had one more IED find. At home, in the months after the operations, Jose waited for his incisions to heal, then worked to strengthen his core and what remained of his legs. He was given “shorties,” introductory pros- thetics without knee joints so he could learn to balance and stand—and get used to the pressure on his legs. Later he received prosthetics with knee joints so he could learn to walk again. Physical recovery is one thing; mental recov- ery is a much different matter. Jose’s wife, Eliana, whom he married six months after getting in- jured, remembers some very dark days: Jose, at 24, in a wheelchair in the house, drapes drawn, JOSE HAS LOST A LOT OF BLOOD but somehow stays conscious, asking for Zenit. The dog, 20 feet from the blast, knows something has gone wrong and lies down at Jose’s side, his ears pinned to his head.