Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Soldiers' Best Friend

Sgt. Grady Bentley, 58th MP Co. a dog handler, instructs Britt to search a cement truck for explosives prior to the truck entering Bagram Air Base. The K-9s serve as an addition to the force protection efforts conducted daily by MPs. They are also trained to participate in combat patrols. Picture taken by: Staff Sgt. Monica R. Garreau

PATROL BASE WILSON, Afghanistan — Troy Herbst knew something was fishy when his partner Casio began scratching excitedly on the wall of an abandoned residential compound during a Canadian patrol earlier this month. For one, the empty home’s normally rock-hard building material consisting of mud and straw was peeling off with ease under Casio’s paws.It was a Taliban weapons cache — 900 rounds of armour-piercing .50-calibre bullets, hidden for future use by insurgents, possibly as part of a spring offensive feared by some. The crates of Russian-built rounds, capable of slicing through a LAV III troop carrier, were stacked up where a doorway had once been and then simply plastered over. “It would have been a bad day for Canada if those had been used,” said Herbst. Casio and his handler tag along on foot patrols with members of the Canadian Forces battle group operating in the former southern Afghan homeland of the Taliban. When confined to camp — a Canadian forward operating base plunked on a key route west of ambush alley leading out of Kandahar City — they do roadside sweeps, checking vehicles for any explosive contraband. As his reward for discovering lethal ordnance, Casio, a lovable German shepherd away from work, gets to play with his favourite tennis ball. Herbst and Casio make up one of several explosives-sniffing teams who work for American K9, which is contracted to the Canadians serving in Op Athena, Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan. Casio’s canine sidekick at Patrol Base Wilson, Sabat, has found a number of weapons caches since arriving here in late summer. He and his handler Dolf Niemand were called out after a convoy ambush in August that resulted in six Afghan drivers being killed. German shepherds are the preferred war-zone explosives dog because of their intelligence, good noses, longer concentration spans and ability to learn quickly, said Herbst, who lives in South Africa. Casio is “just an over-sized lapdog,” said Herbst. He’s frequently mauled by adoring soldiers. “Every Wednesday and Saturday we get steak — and the dogs get three. It’s very unfair,” said Herbst.

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