Babylon & Beyond

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IRAQ: Dog duty

February 26, 2008 |  7:13 am

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It wasn't your typical military mission. For starters, the soldiers leading the patrol had four legs each, one of which was frequently lifted.

They were Army Staff Sgt. Iron and Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Pluto, two of about 200 dogs deployed in Iraq to sniff for bombs, chase down insurgents, hunt for human remains or just offer comfort to soldiers in need.

For the first time, therapy dogs have been sent to a combat zone, and two are in northern Iraq working with stressed-out troops.

Iron and Pluto are not the warm and fuzzy type, though.

Fearsome-looking creatures who weigh more than 80 pounds each, they go up front on foot patrols to search for weapons and explosives in insurgent-filled areas not previously scoured by U.S. troops.

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It is dangerous duty. At least three dogs have died in Iraq. During the Vietnam War, 281 dogs were killed on the battlefield.

If Iron and Pluto were aware of the dangers facing them on a recent mission southeast of Baghdad, in the volatile Arab Jabour area, they weren't letting on. Iron, a German shepherd, sat quietly next to his partner, Sgt. Joshua T. Rose. Pluto, a svelte Belgian Malinois, pranced excitedly next to his teammate, Petty Officer 2nd Class Blake T. Soller.

For the dogs, the patrol was another chance to enjoy a long walk on a brisk winter's day.

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Their partners, though, are responsible for making sure the dogs are warm enough in the winter, cool enough in summer, properly nourished, well rested and protected from the same insurgents who try to kill human soldiers. Team members get basic veterinary training, part of the course they must pass before being allowed to work with military dogs.

"For the most part, when there's a firefight, the first thing the humans do is try to safeguard the dog," said Sgt. 1st Class Michael Goodro Jr., who handles requests for dog teams from his station at Forward Operating Base Kalsu, southeast of Baghdad.

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Soller once leapt 60 feet into the cold waters of New York Harbor to save Pluto, who had jumped over the side of a cargo ship they were searching.

Goodro calls the nine dogs assigned to his brigade his "guys." "The hardest part of the job is sending these guys out there and having a casualty," said Goodro, who has a black Lab and an English bulldog back home in Florida.

It happened last July in Goodro's area of operation, when Army Cpl. Kory D. Wiens, 20, and his dog Cooper were killed by a bomb while on patrol. Their remains lie buried, side by side, in Wiens' hometown of Dallas, Ore.

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Pluto's and Iron's mission ended in victory. Iron found two bombs buried in an orchard. He then sat proudly for portrait photographs beside each discovery.

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As explosives experts prepared to detonate the devices, Staff Sgt. Rose covered Iron's ears to block the sound. Iron, he explained, is terrified of loud noises.

Pluto lay on the ground, too tired to be concerned. His eyelids drooped as the sun sank behind the palm trees.

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With the mission over, Rose with Iron and Soller with Pluto climbed into the back of their mine-resistant MRAP and headed back to base. Pluto and Iron got into a brief brawl, but it was more bark than bite. No blood was shed.

The next day, after about 15 hours' sleep, they were out on a practice field with other dogs, honing their sniffing skills for future missions.

Tina Susman in Minari village

Photos: From top, Army Staff Sgt. Iron awaits mission orders (Tina Susman); Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Blake T. Soller preps Pluto for the mission (Tina Susman); Soller and Pluto scour a field for hidden explosives (Tina Susman); Soller gives Pluto a minute with his favorite toy after a successful find (Tina Susman); Army Cpl. Kory Wiens and his dog Cooper, who died in Iraq in July (Army Times); Army Sgt. Joshua T. Rose photographs Iron next to a bomb the dog discovered (Tina Susman); Rose and Iron relax at the end of their mission (Tina Susman).

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