Howdy Stout – Staff Writer
“We’ve got a bomb threat at the shoppette,” the Airman says. “Who do you want to send?” Tech. Sgt. Michael Jones thinks for a second. “I’ll go with Blacky,” he says.
It takes only a few minutes for Sergeant Jones, the kennelmaster for the 72nd Security Forces Squadron to locate his partner, an all-black German Shepherd. Blacky leaps into the rear cab of the truck and the two — cop and canine — are on the way.
Tech Sgt. Michael Jones and military working dog Blacky pause during patrol in Iraq for a water break. (Courtesy photo)
“We don’t normally get those on base,” Sergeant Jones says of the bomb threat. “They’ll have set up a cordon and then we’ll go in and search it out.”
For Sergeant Jones and Blacky, their Monday morning call to duty is another day of a partnership that started several years ago and included two eventful tours of duty in Iraq, for which Sergeant Jones received the Air Force Combat Action Medal, three Army Commendation Medals and the Army Combat Action Badge.
“Both times I was there, we were on nothing but combat missions,” Sergeant Jones said. “We’d go out on patrol and see what the dog would find.”
Like other military working dogs, Blacky is trained in a number of skills, including searching out explosives, drugs, weapons and people.
Trained with other canines destined for military service, Blacky learned his basic skills at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. Assigned to Tinker, with Sergeant Jones as his handler, Blacky refined those skills before he and Sergeant Jones were deployed to Iraq in September 2006.
As one of only two dog teams supporting an entire Army Brigade, Sergeant Jones said the days were busy. “We did everything,” he said. “A wide array of jobs.”
Using Blacky’s training and superior sense of smell, the German Sheppard could sniff out IEDs, illegally-cached weapons and even terrorist suspects. On raids of suspected terrorist hideouts, Sergeant Jones said he and Blacky would often wait outside in case the suspect tried to flee. Dogs, of course, are faster than humans.
“That’s where a dog comes in handy,” Sergeant Jones says.
Patrols were conducted in Hummvees, Stryker armored vehicles or by helicopter. “Which is pretty interesting with a dog who’s never been in a helicopter before,” Sergeant Jones said. Like any combat newcomer, Sergeant Jones said Blacky was a bit skittish at first. “Going from here to the streets of Baghdad, it’s a completely different environment.”
Gone were the air-conditioned K-9 trailers and patrol vehicles. In their place were dusty vehicles loaded with fellow warfighters.
“They adapt to the environment just like we do,” Sergeant Jones said. “By the second deployment, he was like a vet.”
Returning home in May 2007, Sergeant Jones and Blacky had a six-month respite before returning to Iraq in November 2007. This time, Sergeant Jones oversaw 13 teams of dogs and handlers and spent much of his time assisting Special Forces in locating insurgents. Although they were a experienced team, the work was still dangerous.
“We were out on a search and we got ambushed by insurgents,” Sergeant Jones said. “At first, it was like in slow motion…I could see the rounds hitting the street and I remember thinking, ‘Are they shooting at me?’”
Faced with a firefight, the insurgents fled.
“We went to another location, searched it, and it happened again,” he said. That day, Sergeant Jones said, “was eventful.”
Sergeant Jones said insurgents often used hit-and-run tactics as they knew they couldn’t win a stand-up firefight. And they especially respected the capabilities of trained military dogs. “They looked at our dogs as completely different,” he said. “And for some reason, they don’t like black dogs.”
Dogs were a good tool to keep people from congregating in one place, making themselves good targets for suicide bombers. In addition, the psychological effect of a dog’s presence often deterred aggression.
“That’s the biggest part of our capability is psychological deterrence,” Sergeant Jones says.
Returning to Tinker in May 2008, Sergeant Jones and Blacky resumed their duties of supporting the base’s security forces and even patrolling as “ordinary” police. As the Kennelmaster at Tinker, Sergeant Jones oversees the 12 teams of handlers and dogs. Every day is a training day for the handlers and the dogs as they continually build on their skills and practice their proficiency. The dogs must maintain the ability to identify explosives with 95 percent accuracy and identify drugs with 90 degree percent accuracy.
“It’s our job to progress the dog through training,” Sergeant Jones says. “Once a handler is assigned a dog, they’re responsible for everything concerning that dog, from grooming to washing to training.”
Dogs too old or ill to work are often adopted by handlers. Sergeant Jones adopted one, Sonja, after her retirement. But sometimes they don’t make it to retirement. In 2007 Marco was electrocuted and killed during a building search in Iraq. “He’s our only combat casualty,” Sergeant Jones said.
However, the work continues, with the odd bomb threat to vary the routine.
“I bet they don’t run no exercises on us today,” says one Airman as he and his partner eyeball Sergeant Jones and Blacky searching the suspected bomb area.
“It was nothing,” Sergeant Jones says of their search. “But I’d rather do that than do paperwork.” Blacky jumps back into his spot in the truck and quickly snuggles down. “And that’s a day’s work.”
(June 19, 2009)