September 27, 2012

IASK preps canine teams for combat

Story and photos by Cpl. Aaron Diamant
Desert Warrior Staff
Photo illustration by Cpl. Aaron Diamant
Lance Cpl. Nick Lemon, a military working dog handler with 3rd Law Enforcement Battalion, stationed in Okinawa, Japan and his K-9 partner Benny, share a bonding moment before night operations training during the Inter-service Advanced Skills K-9 course, at the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground, Sept. 24.

As the light fades and the stars begin to appear, most people are thinking about crawling into bed. The participants of the Inter-service Advanced Skills K-9 Course are putting on and checking their gear, getting ready for another training day with their four-legged partners, waiting for them in the nearby kennels.

It’s no secret the largest killer of American service members in Afghanistan is improvised explosive devices.

The military may train its troops to look for the signs of an IED, but when it comes to saving the lives of our deployed Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines, there are few tools more valuable than a Military Working Dog.

To hone the military police K-9 teams’ skills before deployments to Afghanistan, the three-week Inter-service Advanced Skills K-9 Course at the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground’s K-9 Village, puts them through some of the rigors the teams can expect in combat.

It takes a lot to make a MWD team. First, it takes a very special and highly trained animal. But, just as important to the team is the handler responsible for the dogs’ care and training.

Lance Cpl. Sam Enriquez, a military working dog handler with 3rd Law Enforcement Battalion, stationed in Okinawa, Japan and his K-9 partner Kally, take part in night operations training during the Inter-service Advanced Skills K-9 course, at the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground, Sept. 24.

A MWD team takes care of one another. While the dog is tasked with locating potentially life threatening explosives and bomb making materials, the handler is tasked with keeping the dog fed, hydrated, in top working condition and reading the signs the animal gives when it has found something.

Much like service members are expected to care for one another if they are injured, the handlers are taught to care for their animals in an emergency. It’s so important, canine first aid is the first thing the course covers. After that, it’s all combat preparation.

“We train for combat,” said Staff Sgt. Ken Porras, course instructor and native of North Bergen, N.J. “There is no sugar coating, whip cream or cherries on top; it’s straight survival. This is not a basic dog handler course, it is a team advanced skills course, designed to strengthen the team.”

The course is known to take its toll on participants, but there is a reason it’s held in Yuma.

“It’s a tough course, the heat alone will get you,” said Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Trevor Houseknecht, a K-9 handler stationed at Naval Submarine Base Groton, Conn., and native of Dead Center, Penn. “A lot of the dogs aren’t used to this kind of environment. It’s over 100 degrees outside, and the ground temperatures can get up to 150 degrees. This is why they call this place ‘The Proving Ground,’ it’s Afghanistan’s twin.”

Teams come from all over the world for IASK, some from Japan, Germany, Italy or even Alaska.

“It’s a good way to proof your dog, a good way to test your dog,” said Gunnery Sgt. Kristopher Knight, the course’s chief instructor. “If you and your dog can’t perform here, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to do it in Afghanistan. The similarity we have here to Afghanistan, down to the sand and stone, it’s a great environment to train in for them, as opposed to where some of them came from.”

The terrain is harsh, the weather is unforgiving, but so is where they are headed to perform their life saving mission.

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