Coba, a 3-year-old chocolate lab, often stands for a lot of things.
Sheâ€™s the dog troops leave at home before deploying; the one they grew up with. Sheâ€™s a fond memory, a beacon of happiness â€“ temporarily, if nothing else â€“ in a place far from home.
â€œI just have to ask. Can I pet her?â€ a Soldier asked Cobaâ€™s trainer at the National Training Center.Â Soldiers with the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division are here making final preparations for a fall deployment to Afghanistan.Â Coba is with them to demonstrate her capabilities as a bomb-sniffing dog.
â€œI miss my dog,â€ the Soldier said, kneeling down to stroke Cobaâ€™s coat of thick, brown fur, his gentler side clearly getting the best of him.
And the other Soldiers who stood gathered in the section of tent shelter where Coba lay on the floor panting from the desert heat all agreed â€“ they missed theirs, too.
Coba serves as a tactical explosives detector dog, or TEDD â€“ a canine whose job is to sniff out bombs in combat zones. Sheâ€™s manâ€™s best friend and also one of his best weapons on todayâ€™s battlefield.
Her handler, David Sheffer, who works as a trainer for Vohne Liche Kennels in Denver, Ind., where Coba and the other TEDDs learn their trade, brought her to a mock forward operating base at the NTC June 14 so Soldiers, civilians and Afghan role players could see her talents.
Fourth Brigade will soon select 25 Soldiers from across its ranks and from different career fields to train at Vohne Liche before the brigadeâ€™s fall deployment to Afghanistan. Once overseas, their sole jobs will be to care for and escort their issued dogs to regions in need of explosives detection capabilities â€“ to interpret the behaviors of their furry friends and to trust in them.
To find the right Soldiers for the demanding two-month course, Sheffer spent June 5-15 traveling to various companies and platoons in the brigade spread out across NTC.
â€œWeâ€™re trying to show and demonstrate the capabilities of these dogs to build some excitement with the Soldiers that are out here to get them exposed to this program and to get the commanders used to working the dogs in this environment,â€ said Sheffer.
Army observers monitoring training for the Soldiers of 4th Brigade, who run, oversee and assess the performance of units at the NTC, hid small paper sacks of explosive residue inside the tent for Coba to locate.Â A small audience of Soldiers watched closely as Coba sought out the scents with ease, stopping briefly to lick the face of a sergeant first class sitting in the room.
â€œWoo, good girl!â€ he cheered, praising her success.
For Sheffer, who spent 14 of his 22 years as an Air Force military policeman working with dogs, showcasing the abilities of four-legged secret weapons like Coba is an important mission.
But it tends to be the more dog-like things that ultimately draw troops in.
â€œObviously, her ideal mission is to go out and find explosives, but if it will help the Soldier, Sailor, Airman and Marine get through, then Iâ€™ll call her a therapy dog also,â€ said Sheffer as Coba relaxed on the tent floor.
â€œMost of them have pets at home that they miss â€“ and it just brings them closer to their families and pets back home,â€ he said. â€œEverywhere we go, people stop and say, â€˜Oh, I miss my dog. Itâ€™s so great to see your dog out here.â€™ â€
Sheffer travels to installations and training centers across the country seeking out the right Soldiers to lead the uniquely trained dogs overseas. This is the second appearance the TEDDs have made at NTC.
â€œWhat it does is lift the Soldiersâ€™ spirit,â€ said Sgt. 1st Class Kelly Pippin, the training observer who followed Sheffer and Coba around for their visit to the training center. â€œThey see something that reminds them of home â€“ that first pet they might have had.â€
And to Sheffer, that can be a game changer for not only motivation but job performance.
â€œItâ€™s just a little piece of home,â€ he said. â€œAnd the happier you are, the better youâ€™re going to function.
â€œThatâ€™s just the psychology of any job â€“ if youâ€™re out there and something made you happy, itâ€™s just going to boost your morale and make you want to go out and perform.â€
Pippin, a 21-year Army military policeman who oversaw the deployment of explosives detection dogs to various operating bases across Afghanistan on his most recent deployment, has witnessed that first hand.
â€œIâ€™ve had Soldiers say, â€˜Hey, sergeant, can I play with your dog?â€™ And then theyâ€™re like, â€˜Hey, sergeant, Iâ€™m ready, letâ€™s go!â€™ â€ he said.Â â€œFor some strange reason, petting a dog â€“ whatever angerâ€™s built up goes right away.Â Itâ€™s a great stress reliever to play with the dog.â€
Itâ€™s a proven fact, Pippin said, that the dogs work as successful explosives detection devices.
But this device, trying to cool off in middle of the Mojave Desert, is different. It will lick you; it will love you; it will take you back to a place you miss.
And almost always, it will bring out the best in you.