Even K-9 VETS have trouble with the battle - Poor pups have it rough and do an awesome job but still can have issues - Hats off to the Marines & their K-9 Battle Buddies !!
Even His Red Squeak Toy Can't Get First Sgt. Gunner, USMC, to Fight
Despite Rehab, the Yellow Lab Won't Sniff for Bombs in Combat; He's 'a Lover'
By MICHAEL M. PHILLIPS - Wall Street Journal
CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan—When the Marines cry "Havoc!" and let slip the dogs of war, one remains in his kennel. Quivering.
Out of the 58 bomb-sniffing dogs the Marines have in Afghanistan, only one—a brown-eyed, floppy-eared yellow Lab named Gunner—is suffering from such severe canine post-traumatic stress disorder that he had to sit out the ongoing offensive in central Helmand Province.
Marines' Troubled Pup
"He's the only combat-ineffective dog out here," says his kennel chief, Cpl. Chad McCoy.
Like their human comrades, some war dogs can handle combat, and some can't. One Marine Corps explosives dog, a black Lab named Daisy, has found 13 hidden bombs since arriving in Afghanistan in October. Zoom, another Lab, refused to associate with the Marines after seeing one serviceman shoot a feral Afghan dog. Only after weeks of retraining, hours of playing with a reindeer squeaky toy and a gusher of good-boy praise was Zoom willing to go back to work.
"With some Marines, PTSD can be from one terrible event, or a cumulative effect," says Maj. Rob McLellan, 33-year-old operations officer of the 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, who trains duck-hunting dogs back home in Green Bay, Wis. Likewise, he says, the stress sometimes "weighs a dog down to the point where the dog just snaps."
He graduated from bomb-dog school in Virginia. He could hunt and tolerate gunfire. He could sniff out explosives, including the homemade ammonium-nitrate fertilizer bombs that inflict most allied casualties in Afghanistan. But he was skittish even before he arrived in the combat zone in October and was posted to a front-line battalion. He reached a crisis soon afterwards.
He reacted so nervously to the rattle of gunfire and deep boom of artillery commonplace around military outposts that he never even got a chance to test his mettle on a real patrol. His handlers aren't sure what pushed Gunner over the edge. His official record is damning, however: Gunner, it reads, "is not mission capable and is a liability if he is to leave the wire."
Capt. Michael Bellin, an Army veterinarian working with the Marines, says he's seen canine post-traumatic stress disorder cases before. "I think it's possible, depending on what they went through," says Capt. Bellin, 33, from Delafield, Wis.
Gunner was sent to the main kennel at Camp Leatherneck, a rear base. There, bomb dogs recuperate from illness or injury, under the care of Cpl. McCoy, a 25-year-old member of the famed feuding clan from Hickman County, Tenn.
Cpl. McCoy, a sandy-haired man with sunburnt cheeks, tries to strike a balance between encouraging the dogs' natural whimsy and keeping his own emotional distance. The handlers can't grow so fond of their charges that they hesitate to send them into danger's way.
Still, it's hard to stay very aloof from the slobbering, enthusiastic Labs. Although the dogs generally live in 9-by-9-foot aluminum cages, Cpl. McCoy sometimes lets Gunner sleep on a camouflage-patterned sheet on a cot in his tent.
A security detail that includes bomb-sniffing dogs is working to protect Iraqis, but these canines had to overcome some cultural roadblocks. Video courtesy of Agence France-Presse.
The Marine Corps gives each dog a military rank, one notch above his handler's, to reinforce the idea that the dogs deserve respect. Gunner is formally assigned to a gunnery sergeant, so he's a first sergeant, a high rank among enlisted Marines, human and canine.
For weeks after he arrived at Camp Leatherneck, Gunner refused to leave the kennel compound. Even now almost any sound sends him into a panic. If a shipping container door slams somewhere nearby, Gunner hunches down and bolts for an open cage door. If an artillery round goes off in the distance, he races into Cpl. McCoy's tent, then weaves around the cages, his tail low and twitchy. Even the click of a camera shutter can send him flashing back to some bad experience only he can recall.
Lately, the corporal has been able to persuade Gunner to take walks around camp, though the dog tugs at his leash in fear and appears to take no pleasure in the activity.
There are moments, however, when Gunner resembles his old self. On a recent day Cpl. McCoy drove him out to the training area to try his nose at finding hidden bombs. The corporal buried three sticks of C-4 plastic explosives in a few inches of dirt.
"He won't make it 20 feet," Cpl. McCoy predicted, letting Gunner off the leash some 100 yards from the hidden C-4.
But Gunner surprised him. Despite the roar of helicopters overhead, he ventured out in the direction of the buried explosives, dodging left and right in response to the corporal's whistles and hand signals.
At no time, though, did he drop his nose to the ground to sniff for explosives. "It's a miracle he did that well," the corporal said afterwards, tossing Gunner his red-rubber toy as a reward for his effort.
Next he let another Lab, Mag, give it a try. Mag was in rehab for a condition from which he tired quickly and lost mobility in his tail and legs. But Mag is an enthusiastic bomb hunter.
At Cpl. McCoy's command—"Back!"—Mag sprinted across the rocky desert, sniffing and searching in instant response to the signals. Soon he caught a whiff of something and dropped to his belly—directly on top of the spot where Cpl. McCoy had buried the C-4.
The corporal assured him he was a good dog and let him play fetch for a few minutes. "This is a constant game to them," says Cpl. McCoy. "They don't know it's life or death."
Gunner gives the impression that he understands exactly what's at stake. On the next trial, Cpl. McCoy dispatched him to find explosives buried under a soda can on the side of a dry ditch. There was machine-gun fire audible in the distance, and Gunner got no more than 20 or 30 feet before he changed his mind and circled back to the corporal's side.
"Gunner's a lover," Cpl. McCoy says. "Mag's a fighter."
The corporal holds out little hope that Gunner will one day be fit for combat, searching for hidden bombs amid the din of war. He'll consider it a success if Gunner casts his demons far enough aside to be a good pet for someone back home.
"We're trying to get him into the dog mind-set," Cpl. McCoy says.
Write to Michael M. Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org