National Geographic : 2014 Jun
Dogs of War 47 of random shootings, of drug dealing, he wanted to escape. What he wanted most was the op- posite of that world: He wanted to be a marine. In July 2007, at 18, he enlisted and found himself at Camp Pendleton. Having grown up rootless and without religion, he immediately fell in love with the military’s sense of tradition and ritual. He was nicknamed “Socks,” for his civilian uniform of baggy shorts and tube socks pulled up to the knee. Upon graduating from boot camp, he signed up for military police training and was eventually assigned to the U.S. base on Okinawa. As a class standout, he was also offered the chance to go to Lackland to begin training as a dog handler. Jose had always loved dogs. During his er- ratic upbringing, they’d been ballast. At various times he’d owned a Dalmatian, a pit bull, and a Pekingese–chow chow mix named Bandit, leg- endary for once biting a friend on the posterior. But Jose understood that a military dog was an instrument he had to master, just as a technician had to understand sonar on a submarine or a drone operator had to learn to control a Predator. The military, with its sharp edges and unyield- ing discipline—the thing that was saving him from the streets and his parents’ life—seemed a little more humane in those moments when he was rewarding a dog by roughing its neck fur or giving it some fawning praise. Though he instantly loved the work, he was also inspired by its higher purpose. One bomb found in the field might equal several lives saved. Jose’s first impression of Zenit was that he seemed too sweet and a little unruly, still full of puppy energy. Jose already had a dog, a Ma- linois, but he was eager to try a shepherd and picked out Zenit himself. A new working dog in the Marines learns to search for IEDs in small, incremental steps. After mastering basic obedience, the dogs are taught to recognize a range of odors associated with explosives, including ammonium nitrate, which is used in the majority of IEDs in Afghanistan. Then they begin to practice an exercise known as “birding,” which is designed to let the handler direct the dog’s movements from a distance. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jonathan Bourgeois clips Oopey’s toenails before a mission in Afghanistan. Handlers care for their dogs’ every need, learning canine CPR as well as how to spot canine post-traumatic stress disorder, which afflicts some 5 percent of deployed dogs.