Military working dogs and their handlers can be together 24/7 while deployed. More often than not, the canine warriors eat and work and socialize with their handlers. They sleep in or near their handlers' cots. Some dogs crawl right into their sleeping bags. And on long missions, they can try to catch some winks together in foxholes.
A handler's life is in his dog's nose, and dog's life in his handler's hands. The bond is deep, utterly indescribable, most handlers will tell you.
"You know this dog so well, and he knows you. The dog probably knows you better than your spouse does," says Marine Sergeant Mark Vierig.
Master Chief Scott Thompson, the NCO in charge of dog operations in Afghanistan for a year, agrees. "The bond will pull you through the toughest situations," he says. "I don't think there's anything else in the world that can compare to the bond between a handler and dog."
My new book, Soldier Dogs: The Untold Story of America's Canine Heroes [Penguin Group, $26.95], opens up the world of military working dogs as never before, shedding new light on every aspect of the military dog world, including these incomparable bonds
Here are some photos dogs in the book, with heartwarming vignettes about their relationships with their handlers.
Military working dog Lex L479 and his handler, Marine Sgt. Mark Vierig, would go to sleep in the foxholes they shared for a month while on patrol in Afghanistan during the cold, wet winter. Soon after Vierig fell asleep, the Belgian Malinois would crawl out from their tarp-protected foxhole and stand guard over him through the night - often in torrential rains. The dog did not sit, but stood, head erect, large triangular ears at attention and focused for sounds, eyes peering into the darkness for any sign of intrusion. His coat was soaked with rain, but he stood riveted, noble. "I'd tell him, 'Hey you, come on in here!' " and he'd leave his post and go to his subterranean room - at least until Vierig fell asleep again.
Nothing fazed Patrick L722. During one firefight, Patrick lay beside his handler, Marine Cpl. Charles "Cody" Haliscak, in the tall grass as Haliscak and the rest of the squad engaged the Taliban. But the Belgian Malinois wasn't lying there cowering. He was lying there eating grass as the bullets screamed by. One day this loyal, calm dog alerted Halisack to an improvised explosive device (IED), saving the lives of the troops who were following him. Tragically, the IED exploded under him. "I lost my best friend. He was my hero," says Haliscak.
The formidable-looking German shepherd, Rex L274, stands guard as his soldiers take a lunch break in their Stryker vehicle. He looked the role of fearsome warrior, but Rex was actually a gentle giant. The specialized search dog did not make it as a patrol dog because he was a sweet, sensitive fellow. "If you were playing and you acted as if he bit you, he'd let go and look all sad," Ingraham says. But she knew he would put his life on the line to protect her.
Lars J274 gets laughs wherever he shows up as a bomb-sniffing military working dog. "Fear the terriers!" a sailor cries as the little Jack Russell terrier and his handler approach a nuclear submarine Lars will check for explosives. Lars, who has a Napoleon complex, doesn't seem to notice the lighthearted atmosphere he creates in his wake. His handler, Navy MA3 Cameron Frost, has learned to roll with the jokes. Lars is not the dog he imagined being partnered with when he became a Navy dog handler, "but he grows on you."
Robby D131 was Air Force Staff Sgt. James Bailey's first military working dog. Robby, however, was a veteran of three deployments, and Bailey says Robby taught him the ropes when they deployed to Iraq. Together in war, now together in peace, the two retired from the military and are enjoying life together in a leafy Virginia suburb. "It's great to be able to give back to him and try to repay the life-long sacrifice he has given to me, his other handlers, and the country," says Bailey.