FALLUJAH, Iraq -- Nick is a smart, cute, playful and affectionate five-year-old German Shepherd, who likes to take long walks, bite rubber balls and chew on fluffy pillows.
That's who he is on his off-time, anyhow.
When this explosives-detecting canine is on the job, however, he would just as soon sniff out a roadside bomb as he would maul to shreds the terrorist who placed it there.
Nick is the weapon of choice for Marine K-9 handlers like Cpl. Chris Mann who arrived here in mid-March. The 23-year-old Bartlett, Tenn., native and his dog accompany 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment personnel on numerous raids and combat patrols throughout Fallujah and the surrounding areas. Together, they search the streets and houses for hidden weapons and improvised explosive devices.
"On a patrol, we usually take point (lead man position), that way the dog can clear the road for IEDs," said Mann, a 2000 Bartlett High School graduate.
"These dogs can detect all types of explosives and rounds of ammunition. On raids, we go inside and clear the house, and then the combat engineers sweep through again with their metal detectors. It's a lot quicker to use the dogs than to have the (infantry) Marines go through and search every part of the house."
The K-9 handlers' latest effort to deter terrorist activity, Operation Hard Knock, took place here July 7. During this mission, the battalion's infantrymen blocked off entire neighborhoods, while other Marines and Iraqi soldiers swept through each house inside the sector. Alongside them were Mann and Nick, rapidly moving through each residency to sniff out any possible threats.
"We were there to find weapons caches, but also to act as a deterrent to insurgents," Mann said, explaining how terrorists are less likely to attack troops while the dogs are with them because many Iraqis' fear canines. "We searched inside and outside the homes, and on the ground for buried explosives. We got a couple of hits."
After the 10-hour-long mission, the K-9 handlers had assisted their infantry counterparts in finding a shotgun shell, several magazines of ammunition and an AK-47 assault rifle.
Hard Knock, however, was only one mission in a string of counter-insurgency operations K-9 handlers like Mann have accomplished during their time in Iraq.
"We've done several combat patrols and raids, but we've mostly been working at the ECPs," Mann stated, referring to how the dogs assist forces in searching vehicles for contraband at vehicle and personnel entry control points throughout the city.
"We also did the push into Saqlawiyah back in April," he added. The K-9 Marines assisted U.S. and Iraqi forces to establish a base of operations in this township outside Fallujah. A place to which many insurgents fled after last year's offensive.
These missions keep the Marines constantly busy, both while conducting the operation, and during their rest time. All troops are charged with watching theirs and their buddies' backs on patrol, but the K-9 Marines' job entails extra responsibilities. Mann and his fellow handlers must also look to the welfare of their furry friends while keeping an eye out for enemy activity.
"Hard Knock was definitely the longest we've worked our dogs," Mann said. "Usually, they only go for about an hour straight, but that day, they were out for almost 11. Dogs can't sweat; they just pant. That's why we're always giving them water to drink and pouring it on their bellies to keep them cool. I must've gone through about seven CamelBaks (approximately ten liters of water) that day."
Even after completing their missions, the K-9 handlers' jobs have just begun.
"We have to take care of our dogs by bathing and feeding them, along with keeping them hydrated," Mann stated. "We're the duty experts on dogs out here, so we brief colonels and commanders on what we can and can't do."
To learn how to train and properly care for these dogs in challenging climates such as these, the handlers attend a joint-service, 13-week K-9 handler training course aboard Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, after their basic military police schooling.
There, they train their dogs on explosives and narcotics detection, to attack on command, and how to conduct building searches.
Upon graduating, the Marines and their canine companions are ready to hit the Fleet Marine Force, where their skills get put to the test in combat. Many, like Mann, end up in Iraq’s deserts and cities, where their dogs’ keen noses and senses are put to good use sniffing out insurgents.
First Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment’s K-9 handles will continue assisting the infantry and ISF personnel rid the troubled city of a persistent insurgency.
"I’m looking forward to doing more operations," Mann said. "That's what I came out here for, to go out with the grunts and help secure this country."