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A special bond between soldiers

Times Staff Writer

Staff Sgt. Iron quakes with fear at the sound of explosions. He brawls with other soldiers. He whines when he doesn’t get his way and slows others down when he stops to relieve himself during patrols through hostile territory.

But nobody complains, because when it’s time to enter a building that might be rigged to explode, or cross a pasture that could conceal a minefield, Iron is at the front of the line, making sure it’s safe for those who follow.

If it’s not, Iron will bear the brunt of the blast, along with his best friend, Sgt. Joshua T. Rose, who ranks one level below him. It’s an honor Iron enjoys for the dangerous job he does. It also ensures that charges could be filed against Rose in the unlikely event he ever mistreated Iron -- an 80-pound German shepherd.

Rose and Iron are one of about 200 canine teams deployed in Iraq, where the bond between soldiers and their dogs is so deep that some handlers have asked to be buried with their canine partners if they are killed together.

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On frigid winter nights in the Iraqi desert, Rose shares his cot and sometimes his sleeping bag with Iron to keep him warm. In the scorching summer heat, he makes sure Iron has enough water before taking his own share. If the heat is too much for Iron, who has a thick coat of glossy black fur, Rose lets him rest, no matter what the platoon leader might want.

Whenever he goes on a mission, Rose tucks a copy of an ode to police and military dogs into his front pocket. It reads in part: “Trust in me, my friend, for I am your comrade. I will protect you with my last breath. When all others have left you and the loneliness of the night closes in, I will be at your side.”

“These dogs are like our children. I’m closer to my dog than I am to anyone other than my wife,” said Staff Sgt. Charles W. Graves, the kennel master at Forward Operating Base Kalsu, about 20 miles southeast of Baghdad.

Graves works with Udo, a yellow Labrador retriever who holds the rank of sergeant 1st class, one higher than Graves. He is the fifth dog Graves has been teamed with.

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Graves adopted his first dog after it retired from active duty. The dog died at age 16, from a heart attack while chasing a cat.

His fourth dog was aggressive and liked to bite, nothing like Udo, who is a specialized search dog. That means he isn’t aggressive and can run off his leash, wearing a vest that holds a radio through which Graves issues commands.

“If something ever happened to him, I’d never work canine again,” Graves said as Udo did a practice run across a field dotted with remnants of once-lethal explosives and other weapons.

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Handlers are expected to keep their dogs “on odor” by putting them through such training every month, to ensure they don’t lose the ability to detect TNT, C4, AK-47s, wires, metal and the other threats that insurgents have planted across Iraq.

“If they took him out, I’d kinda wish they’d take me out too,” Graves, a former police officer from Oroville, Calif., said as Udo loped nearby. With each successful find, Udo was rewarded with a toss of his favorite toy, a rubber cone.

“It’s a helluva thing, owing your life to a dog,” Graves said.

Before each deployment, troops are asked to update their wills. Graves included a request to be buried with Udo should they die together. It has happened before. Last July, Cpl. Kory D. Wiens, 20, and his Labrador retriever, Cooper, became the first soldier-dog team killed since Vietnam. They were buried side by side in Wiens’ hometown of Dallas, Ore.

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If you spend time with the soldier-dog teams, it becomes clear that the key to being a successful canine handler is to love dogs and to adapt to their childlike needs.

“If you deal well with kids, you’ll deal well with dogs,” said Rose, who has a husky and a dachshund back home in Kansas. “You’re working with about a 3-year-old mentality.”

Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Blake T. Soller knows that all too well. Last April, his 4-year-old dog, Pluto, couldn’t resist leaping over the side of a cargo ship into New York Harbor, 60 feet below. Soller jumped in after Pluto and stayed with the 87-pound Belgian Malinois until a Navy boat picked them up. Neither was injured.

The U.S. military has used dogs in combat zones since World War II and deployed about 4,300 to Vietnam between 1965 and 1973.

According to the military, 281 died in the line of duty there, but hundreds more died after the war ended and U.S. troops departed. Back then, there were no provisions for military dogs to be adopted when their careers were over. Most were euthanized or left behind to uncertain fates.

That changed in 2000, with a law allowing retired military dogs to be put up for adoption at the Military Working Dog center at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. They range from small breeds such as beagles to hulking hounds.

Since the start of the Iraq war, about 1,000 dogs have passed through the combat zone, and three, including Cooper, have been killed in action.

Handlers say dogs are crucial for sniffing out the roadside bombs that are responsible for most soldier casualties, and for smelling wires that indicate booby-trapped buildings. They also search for drugs and illegal weapons at border crossings and checkpoints, chase down suspected insurgents and hunt for human remains.

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And for the first time, the military has sent dogs into a war zone to serve as therapy for troops. Last month, two black Labradors arrived in Iraq to work with stressed-out soldiers.

A canine doesn’t have to be a therapy dog to be therapeutic, though.

On a chilly winter’s day, as troops prepared for a mission in southern Arab Jabour, southeast of Baghdad, attention was focused on Pluto and Iron, not on the dangers ahead. Rose scratched Iron’s ears. Pluto stood on his hind legs and leaned into Soller’s chest, like a dance partner. Other soldiers stood around in full battle gear, talking about their own dogs back home.

Until several weeks ago, the region was in the hands of Sunni Muslim extremists loyal to Al Qaeda in Iraq. A U.S. bombing campaign drove many of them out, but they left behind roads and buildings laden with explosives, and orchards littered with buried ordnance and weapons.

“I’ve had people say, ‘It’s a good thing you’re in the Navy, because that means you’re not on the front lines,’ ” said Soller as he and Pluto led the way down an eerily quiet dirt road lined with houses tucked back among high grass and fruit trees. “It doesn’t get any more front line than this. My job is to clear the way so the rest of the guys can get there.”

Soller, who used to train hunting dogs in Indiana, was tapped to attend canine handling school as a reward for exemplary service in the Navy. Rose, whose father was a police canine handler back home in Virginia, asked to attend the school after earning high marks from a platoon sergeant.

The biggest mistake handlers make is being impatient, Rose said as Iron veered to the side of the road and lifted his leg. The rest of the patrol slowed to avoid getting ahead of the canine team.

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Visits to two homes, including a lavish villa overlooking the reedy banks of the Tigris River, showed how having dogs in the mix can alter an otherwise tense situation.

A grinning adolescent boy used hand signals and broken English to jokingly offer a trade: lean, amber-eyed Pluto for one of his sheep, which stood in a silent, fluffy flock staring at the dogs. In the garden, two women presented the troops with pizza-sized slabs of hot, freshly baked flatbread. Then the boy explained through an interpreter that there were weapons stashed in the wooded area across the road.

Soon, Rose and Iron and Soller and Pluto were pushing through a dense thicket. Within minutes, Rose spotted a subtle change in Iron’s behavior as he nosed around some palm fronds. The 7-year-old dog calmly sat down, a sign he had found something. A metal detector and shovel proved him right. A pipe bomb wrapped in a green sack was buried in the dirt.

By the end of the mission, Iron had made a second find.

After each discovery, Rose rewarded Iron with tosses of a red rubber cone -- as with Udo, Iron’s favorite treat.

The dogs are bought from breeders in Europe and the United States and then trained at the military’s dog school at Lackland Air Force Base.

Iron washed out of two training courses, and his future in the military looked bleak until Rose met him in December 2005.

Rose determined that the problem was not Iron’s nose. It was the fake rawhide bone being used as his reward. It wasn’t appetizing enough to make the dog work hard. When Rose tried the rubber cone, Iron began picking up scents.

Each dog is different. Pluto’s favorite toy is attached to a rope, because he likes playing tug of war with Soller. The petty officer remembers one dog who was satisfied only with a toy steak that squeaked when bitten.

Should dogs be wounded or fall ill, they are given immediate care. Handlers are trained to provide basic treatment until the dog can be taken to a military veterinarian.

When Iron broke a canine, a critical tooth for a dog who sometimes must chase down suspects and hold them, he was given a root canal to save the tooth the same day.

Severe cases are flown to Germany. This happened with Rose’s last dog, Rex. In 2005, Rose and Rex were providing security at the Baghdad trial of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. One day, Rex wouldn’t eat. Rose knew that when his 105-pound German shepherd didn’t eat, something was wrong.

He had him checked by a military veterinarian in Baghdad. The diagnosis was cancer. Rex was dying. He was flown to Germany and euthanized.

But Rex’s memory lives on at Ft. Riley, Kan., home to the Army’s 1st Infantry Division and Rose’s home base. At the base, dogs have a place to play. It’s called Rex’s Bark Park.

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tina.susman@latimes.com


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