Photo By Staff Sgt. Shawn Nickel | U.S. Staff Sgt. Mathis Williams, a 354th Security Forces military working dog (MWD) handler, takes a break from a patrol with MWD Oopal in the dark at 30 degrees below zero March 7, 2016, at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, while the aurora borealis dances behind them. Military working dogs from Eielson work alongside the human defenders who stand “Ready to go at 50 below” 24 hours a day protecting assets that set atop the world in the U.S. Air Force’s Pacific theater of operations. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Shawn Nickel/Released)
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Every paw press into powder dry snow produces a sharp shriek in to the dark frigid air only heard in negative temperatures. Not a breath through the wet, black nostrils isn’t without effort inhaling painful sniffs intent on detecting deadly explosives, drugs or intruders.
Military working dogs from the 354th Security Forces Squadron march alongside the human defenders who stand “Ready to go at 50 below” 24 hours a day protecting assets that set atop the world in the U.S. Air Force’s Pacific theater of operations.
“There is no doubt this duty station puts you in a unique environment,” said Tech. Sgt. J.D. Wake, the 354th SFS kennel master. “There are tricks to being a successful handler here. Part of it is acclimating rather than just overcoming challenges. ‘Train like you fight’ is a saying that is a constant reminder that we can be put off learning to deal with the cold and dark. We are required to be able to function at minus 50 here and weeks later be able to perform at a deployed location on the other side of the world.”
If someone could read the muffled growls coming from behind the sharp fangs they may be begging for the opportunity to work. It’s a drive so intense these dogs are feared by terrorist and criminals throughout the world.
Wake has deployed as a MWD handler two times and has experienced environments around the world on temporary duty and assignments to various Air Force bases. After working with more than 40 K-9s, and bearing the scars to prove it, he is an expert in the field.
“It’s just you and the dog the way on a deployment,” he said. “Even in later in Iraq or established locations you are together all the time. You bond and these dogs become your best friend and partners. That’s similar to how it is here.
“You spend a lot of time on the road and away from other people in a remote environment. You never get to see the true character of a dog ‘till you take him to places like these where there isn’t a comfort zone.”
With the nine months of winter stifling lush grass and creating a thick frozen environment, handlers get creative in exercising the dense muscles hidden under the thick coats of their “fur missiles.” Bounds of energy press from the souls of these prized Airmen who ready to protect and serve like no two-legged counterpart can.
“When temperatures plummet, outside activity has to be quick,” said Staff Sgt. Berret Chappelle, a 354th SFS MWD handler. “When I first got to Eielson I asked how we are able to train with it being so cold. Wake laughed and said, ‘Three minutes at a time.’”
The nine to 10 K-9s at Eielson are no different than the other hundreds stationed around the world. They need to move more than three minutes at a time.
“We take advantage of every space we can after we make sure we are confident we can function outside,” Chappelle said. “Old buildings, long halls, hangers and every other building become our daily patrol. We do a lot of building sweeps and get creative to expel energy.”
Although the far north creates numerous challenges that may seem insurmountable to an outsider, Chappelle can look at the positives of the daily grind by focusing on the brighter aspects of the environment.
“Have you ever looked at the mountains?” he asks with the assumption the answer is yes, focusing on the beauty of the surrounding mountain range. “Have you ever looked at the mountains hanging out with a dog? Doesn’t get better than that.”
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EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, AK, US
This work, Paws below zero, by SSgt Shawn Nickel, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.