COMBAT OUTPOST RAWAH, Iraq - -- The room looks like every average Marine’s: one bunk-bed against the corner, a desk and chair on the opposite wall, and very little dirt in sight. Oh, and brown hair covering nearly every horizontal surface as far as the eye can see.
Cpl. Patrick L. Whitlatch says he does his best to keep the room spotless, but his roommate is somewhat less than accommodating. He spills water on the floor, leaves personal items all over, and never cleans up after himself. Rex might be smart, even outstanding among his peers, but there is only so much a military working dog can be expected to do.
Whitlatch, a military working dog handler with 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 2, and his dog Rex, as well as the battalion’s other dogs and handlers, just wrapped up their role in operation Valiant Guardian. In the operation, they were a key part of the battalion’s sweep through the western Euphrates River valley in search of insurgent safe-havens, weapons, and supply routes.
Whitlatch, a native of Wayland, Mich., has been taking care of and working with Rex every minute of their deployment over the past six and a half months.
“We treat them (dogs) like brothers,” said Army Staff Sgt. Kevin P. Cameron, the staff noncommissioned officer in charge of the battalion’s kennels. “We deploy and redeploy with them. We know they will be there for us and vice versa. We rely on each other for security and safety.”
Rex, a five-year old Belgian Malanois, has been working for the military for most of his life.
“We have worked on foot patrols, cordon and knocks, and cache sweeps,” said Whitlatch. “First LAR, and 2nd LAR before them, really integrated us into their unit and we were able to work extensively throughout our area.”
Whitlatch and Rex, as well as the kennel’s other two military working dogs and handlers, have spent their deployment searching the western Euphrates River valley for weapons and explosives.
“The dogs have detection capabilities far above human abilities,” said Cameron, a native of Sacramento, Calif. “They can provide ambush early warnings; they can clear a room or building. In the end, they are a force multiplier.”
The handlers said the dogs can be trained to do nearly anything a regular Marine can do, short of holding a rifle.
“Anytime you can find explosives or do any of a number of things a Marine in combat is expected to do, without actually putting a Marine in danger, it is an asset,” said Whitlatch.
The handlers said the mere presence of the dogs within a village is sometimes enough to keep insurgents from attempting to harm coalition forces.
“The civilians recognize the added protection the dogs provide, and it deters insurgent activity,” said Cameron. “Plus they boost morale; after all, who doesn’t love seeing a dog around, especially out here in the desert.”
The handlers and their dogs spend nearly every waking moment together while on deployment. They work together, play together, eat together, and sleep merely inches apart.
“He is like an extension of me,” said Whitlatch. “I don’t do anything without him. If something were to happen to him it would be just like my best friend getting hurt.”
The handlers say the dogs each have their own personality, just like humans.
“Rex has the best personality I have ever seen in a working dog. He has a huge sense of humor, and likes to make people smile. We have seen him attack chairs out of boredom, and the more you laugh at him, the more excited he gets,” Whitlatch said.
Though Rex, and other military working dogs like him, may not have the strict living standards most Marines share, like constantly cleaning up after themselves, there is no argument they are an asset and a welcome part of day-to-day life in the Iraqi desert.