GARMSIR DISTRICT, Afghanistan — Without the Marine’s watchful eyes and his dog’s trained nose, the round metal container packed with 40 pounds of homemade explosives could have wreaked destruction on their patrol.
The Feb. 8 security patrol through the Loya Darvishan region of southern Helmand province was no different than the hundreds of others conducted by Lance Cpl. Jarrett Hatley, his improvised explosive device detection dog Blue and fellow Marines with 3rd Platoon, Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment.
While passing through the tiny farming village of Daywala, their Afghan National Army partners stopped to search a suspicious compound. Upon finding several mortar casings, the patrol moved to search the surrounding compounds. They avoided the roads due to the threat of IEDs, opting to cross into an adjacent field through an arid, three-foot canal.
Before stepping into the canal, Hatley noticed a darker patch of dirt that looked recently disturbed. Halting the patrol, he sent Blue to sniff for explosives. Moments later, the yellow Labrador retriever laid down next to the area, confirming the presence of an IED on the path a dozen more men were about to travel.
Hatley was thankful he and Blue found the IED. He considered anything less a failure.
“While we’re on patrol, everyone looks to Blue and I to keep them safe,” said Hatley, a 21-year-old native of Millingport, N.C. “If we mess up, my friends behind me could get blown up … because of my mistake.”
This necessary pressure constantly rests on the minds of 30 ‘America’s Battalion’ dog handlers and their Labrador retrievers, who are currently supporting their fellow Marines and Afghan National Security Forces in Garmsir.
During pre-deployment training in Hawaii last year, Hatley — a rifleman by trade — and other 3/3 infantrymen raised their hands at the opportunity to become dog handlers. Some were eager for the challenge of learning a new skill; others simply wanted to help protect Marines and Afghans from getting hurt, Hatley said.
Between spending seven months “running and gunning” for insurgents on deployment in Helmand’s Nawa district in 2010 and cross training as handlers last year, the Marines’ roles and responsibilities changed. Though they remained with their platoons, they were now called to think and care for two.
On deployment in Garmsir, thousands of miles from safety in the States, the pairs of IED hunters travel, work and live together. They fly on helicopters en route to clearing operations, search passersby at vehicle checkpoints and rest next to one another after exhausting patrols.
Clearing patrol routes from the front, handlers and dogs are the first line of defense against the enemy IED threat. Together, they experience biting sandstorms, bitter cold and, as the summer months near, scorching heat. As a team, they endure the arduous grind of security patrols and standing post.
“They get tired just like we do … they’re dogs, not machines,” said Lance Cpl. Nick Lacarra, a dog handler with CAAT-2, Weapons Company, 3/3, and 20-year-old native of Long Beach, Calif. “They still want to chase animals and jump into the canal to cool off.”
While the dogs are often a challenge to manage, they’re vital to each mission. Their presence and proficiency helps riflemen focus on their mission instead of worrying about striking an IED, Hatley said. Since arriving here in November, IED detection dogs have found four drug caches and two IEDs.
Though the latter number is a fraction of the 25 IEDs 3/3 Marines have uncovered, the handlers are thankful these finds are fewer than they’ve historically been in Garmsir. In both Nawa and Garmsir, they’ve seen friends and peers maimed by IED explosions. As they continue their search for IEDs here, they’re quick to agree “less is more.”
“I’d rather not find any IEDs this deployment than have my dog and I miss one,” said Lance Cpl. Cody Varnell, a dog handler with Combined Anti-Armor Team 2, Weapons Company, 3/3, and 20-year-old native of Mesquite, Texas.
In between their challenging duties, handlers and their fellow Marines often unwind by playing ‘fetch’ with the dogs using plastic bumpers and Frisbees. Since the good-tempered Labrador retrievers are consistently happy and energetic, they always help boost the Marines’ morale, Lacarra said.
“Even when we’re not patrolling, we keep our dogs engaged,” Lacarra said. “This keeps them active and takes our minds off of what we have going on.”
In a combat environment largely devoid of the safety and comforts of home, the energetic Labrador retrievers are neither pets nor expendable objects. They’re faithful friends and saviors of Marines.
“My dog Blue is pretty much like another Marine, I guess,” Hatley said. “He doesn’t know he’s doing it, but he’s protecting all of us. If I have him on a patrol and there’s an IED that could hurt us, I know he’ll find it.”
Editor’s Note: Third Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, is currently assigned to Regimental Combat Team 5, 1st Marine Division (Forward), which works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Forces and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces, and enabling the ANSF assumption of security responsibility within its operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.