News: Bronco and Mariana: MWD team carries on bond of respect, friendship
Story by Staff Sgt. Craig Cantrell
FORT CARSON, Colo. – Sniffing out explosives, subduing potential threats and protecting the lives of his comrades encompassed a day’s work for Bronco, a nine-year veteran of the Department of Defense’s Military Working Dog program.
The Belgian Malinois’ handler, Staff Sgt. John Mariana, had just arrived to the 148th Military Police Detachment, 759th Military Police Battalion, where he was teamed up with Bronco in October of 2010, deploying a month later in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
“When we linked up as a team, it was an instant connection,” said Mariana. “We were a tough team to compare to, because we were so good together. It made us the team to beat.”
Dog and handler teams are typically allowed 90 days to bond and build a rapport before conducting missions, explained Mariana, a New York native. The teams learn to patrol together, detect drugs or explosives, and conduct MWD functions specialized to their mission.
“The training a military working dog handler has to conduct every month is almost overwhelming,” explained Capt. James Bloom, Mariana’s former company commander, 148th MP Det.
With the deployment rapidly approaching, the unit chose to pair Bronco, a veteran of OEF, with Mariana, a veteran of three previous deployments, taking advantage of their experiences in a combat zone, he explained.
Upon completing 30 days of training, the MWD team deployed to Afghanistan.
“You deploy as an individual with your dog and get assigned to a unit of strangers,” explained acting Fort Carson Kennel Master, Staff Sgt. Matthew Clayton, 148th MP. “You have to be able to mesh in with that unit quick to do your mission.”
Upon arrival in Afghanistan, Mariana and Bronco were assigned to a Special Forces Group team.
Mariana said the work ethic and mutual respect he and his working dog had for each other immediately gained the respect of the Soldiers they were assigned to support.
“We try and get mature non-commissioned officers to do this, because they have to sell their capabilities to a commander on the ground,” said Bloom.
Mariana and Bronco’s mission entailed clearing dusty foot patrol routes of improvised explosive devices and entering buildings ahead of the team to “sniff” out any explosives or combatants waiting to ambush U.S. and Afghan forces.
The MWD team found three explosive devices on their first mission within hours of stepping off a CH-47 Chinook in November.
“We would clear up to our objective, and when we got there, he would go in and search the objective,” said Mariana.
The duo discovered approximately 30 explosive devices while on patrols, keeping the rest of their team safe and able to complete their missions.
“Bronco would go up to 300 meters on his own, searching the roadway where we would be walking,” said Mariana. “That gave us a good amount of standoff distance from us and any type of threat.”
During a mission in June 2011, a single event changed the lives of both team members.
“It’s one of those nights I will never forget,” said Mariana.
While on patrol, an enemy combatant drew an AK-47, aligning his sites on Mariana and prepared to fire. Mariana instinctively commanded Bronco to engage the combatant the way they practiced bite training many times before. Bronco attacked the combatant, sinking his teeth into the enemy in an effort to protect his handler from harm. The combatant fired a 7.62mm round from the assault rifle, which entered the left side of Bronco’s muzzle and disintegrated the right side of his muzzle. Bronco ran away in pain.
Mariana’s instincts as a dog handler kicked in, and he began to pursue his dog, following the blood trail left by the wounded animal. He found his partner and began to apply first aid to stop the bleeding coming from Bronco’s muzzle while they waited for help.
A medical evacuation transport flew the dog team to Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan, where Bronco underwent life-saving surgery.
Following surgery, Bronco began the healing process, recovering in his kennel on Bagram Air Field.
Mariana slept in Bronco’s concrete kennel for two weeks, holding the dog’s mouth open to ensure he could breathe throughout the night.
When Bronco became stable enough for transport, the pair boarded a military aircraft and headed back to the U.S. where Bronco would undergo four more surgeries to repair his muzzle.
Mariana explained that while the dog’s muzzle appears functional, the attack permanently damaged his sense of smell, resulting in his inability to function as a MWD.
Bronco can no longer detect as well as he used to; his sense of smell is about 20 percent of what it used to be, he said.
“(Once) Bronco found an IED with a pressure plate buried four feet underground; now, I put something out and he has trouble finding it if it just has dirt pushed over it,” said Mariana.
The task of proving the dog could no longer perform his duties as an MWD fell on Mariana. He spent two months observing and analyzing Bronco before convincing his superiors the dog was not fit for duty.
“He busted his nose open several times, slamming it into the ground and trying to find a scent,” explained Mariana.
Once a military dog handler feels an MWD can no longer perform its duties, a packet must be submitted to the Department of Defense Military Working Dog School at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where a board convenes quarterly to determine if dogs are capable of working, or if they must be medically retired and adopted out.
Once a dog is found to be unfit for duty, it is considered to be excess to the unit, allowing the unit to release the dog for adoption, said Mariana.
A veterinarian must then examine the dog a final time to ensure the animal is fit to become a house pet, before allowing the MWD to be put up for adoption.
After the dog and the handler passed the screening process, Mariana adopted Bronco and retired him to his home.
“I knew Bronco was not going to make it in the MWD program due to his medical condition, and there was no question that Staff Sgt. Mariana would be adopting him,” said Clayton.
Mariana said the bond he shares with Bronco has never been stronger, and the respect that he has for his once partner, now a companion, is nothing short of love.
“He saved my life that night without a doubt,” said Mariana. “He saved a lot of lives.”
Mariana is now assigned to the 59th Military Police Company, 759th MP Bn., where he serves as a squad leader, and Bronco gets to stay home.