Afghanistan's most loyal troops
Dogs play an increasing role in ferreting out roadside bombs in key provinces. As with their masters, not all of them get to come home.
By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times
February 8, 2011
When Pfc. Colton Rusk was shot in Afghanistan by a Taliban sniper, a Marine dog named Eli immediately ran to him, guarding the downed Marine against further attack.
Even Marines who rushed to Rusk's side were initially kept at bay by the snarling Labrador, who had been Rusk's inseparable companion through training and then deployment to a dangerous place called the Sangin Valley.
Rusk, 20, a machine gunner and dog handler from the Camp Pendleton-based 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, died from his wounds that brutal day in early December.
Out of gratitude for Eli's loyalty to their son, Darrell and Kathy Rusk, with the support of Marine brass, arranged to adopt Eli and take him to their ranch in Orange Grove, Texas, near Corpus Christi.
Such adoptions are unusual, though not unprecedented. Last week, Rusk's family took possession of Eli at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, a major training site for military dogs.
Trainers at Lackland and other sites are busy these days. Dogs are playing an increasing role in the U.S.-led fight in Sangin and neighboring Kandahar province — particularly in ferreting out the buried roadside bombs that are the Taliban's weapon of choice.
"They're Afghanistan's forgotten heroes," said Sgt. ShainNickerson, 24, of Rayland, Ohio, whose German shepherd, Aja, accompanies him on patrol in Sangin. "They're out there every day risking their lives to keep Marines safe."
During a visit with wounded Marines at the military hospital in Bethesda, Md., Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos asked how many had a bomb-sniffing dog with them when they were injured. Half did not.
The Marine Corps is now on a crash program to increase the number of its dogs in Afghanistan. "I'd like a dog with every patrol," Amos said.
The director of the Marine program to provide guard dogs and bomb-sniffing dogs says that despite all the money spent on high-tech methods to find buried roadside bombs — estimated at upwards of $20 billion — well-trained dogs are still the most effective.
One of the dogs killed by a roadside blast was a German shepherd named Grief. His handler, Cpl. Al Brenner, 22, of Jackson, N.J., suffered a broken arm, a severed finger and injuries to his legs and groin.
Once he's finished with surgeries and rehabilitation, Brenner wants to reenlist and train dogs for work in Afghanistan. "Without dogs, you're just poking around with a stick, just waiting to get blown up," he said.
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