CAMP HANSON, Helmand province, Afghanistan --
Dependability, integrity, endurance, unselfishness, courage, enthusiasm, loyalty – these are just a few of the leadership traits Marine Corps drill instructors aim to instill within their recruits. The black and yellow labs partnered with Marine infantrymen of 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, are a great deal like Marine recruits. They need to be trained and disciplined, but by the time they are prepared to deploy, they are demonstrating these traits day in and day out.
These courageous canines have become an important part of fighting the insurgency throughout 2/8’s area of operations. Insurgents construct homemade bombs, using wooden pressure plates, plastic jugs and fertilizer in hopes of making improvised explosive devices less detectable. The agile, light-footed dogs are born with the sense of smell that can help combat the insurgent’s desperate attempts to make a more deadly weapon.
“The Marines train the dogs to detect (a variety of different materials) used in the production of IEDs,” said Mogadore, Ohio, native Lance Cpl. Ryan Heigelmann, a dog handler with the battalion. “The dogs traverse the patrol formation and will usually find the IEDs before the Marines with their metal detectors.”
The Marines spend more than a year with their dogs. The time spent training and deploying together creates a bond between the Marines and their dogs and over time, they are able to understand one another.
“A handler can lose a friend and the dog knows right away that something is wrong – they know we’re not ourselves,” said Zanesville, Ohio native Lance Cpl. Stephen Kessler, a handler with the battalion. “Sometimes it’s hard to work with the dogs because they read off of our emotions. If we’re in a bad mood, the dogs are in a bad mood – they think it’s their fault, but if we’re in a good mood the dogs are awesome.”
The black and yellow labs are always ready to work, looking at their job of searching for IEDs as more of a game. They run ahead of the formation eliciting smiles from the patrolling Marines while actively searching for the IED threat. When the Marines return to the patrolling base, the dogs help stave off the loneliness of deployment and improve the Marine’s spirits.
“Having the dogs around improves morale for the Marines,” said Heigelmann. “When one of my fellow Marines was on radio watch, my dog brought him a brand new coffee bag, gave it to him and came back with a bottle of water. He stood up and said ‘thanks for bringing me a cup of coffee’ – She’s a smart dog.”
Their loyalty is unquestionable – their enthusiasm unyielding. The bomb-sniffing dogs of 2/8 impart an essential advantage unto the Marines on the battlefield while offering necessary companionship to the Marines and sailors of the unit.
“It’s a bond, being with them for a year, feeding and taking care of them – you grow attached,” said Heigelmann. “The best part is that you always have a companion with you, a buddy.”
“Editor’s note: 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines is currently assigned to Regimental Combat Team 1, 2nd Marine Division (Forward), which heads Task Force Leatherneck. The task force serves as the ground combat element of Regional Command (Southwest) and works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Force and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces, and enabling ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its area of operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.”