Sunday, September 5, 2010
THE RED RUBBER BALL
During a heavy mortar attack in Iraq, SSgt Robert J. Black, a Military Working Dog handler, chose to stay in his room with German Shepherd Aron F300, rather than go to the shelter with other military members. This is the intensity of their bond. “He put me at ease, just knowing he was there by my side.” SSgt Black honors the deep connection and tells me that, “No one outside of K9 will ever understand the bond that is created. Some get closer to their MWD than their own spouse, especially after six months in Iraq. You can say anything you want without judgment. You always get love in return.” You just can’t ask for more than that.
Aron, four years old, is an explosive detection and patrol dog and according to SSgt Black, his additional job is also to “keep me sane.” Aron has the exuberance of youth and in his down time loves to play with his frisbee. But in the end it is the red rubber ball that has been the catalyst for saving lives!
Aron is a hero, not known by many, but a hero just the same. Here in SSgt Black’s own words is the story of the red rubber ball and a very special hero. So on this Labor Day weekend, take a moment to remember and recognize our K-9's that are saving lives every day~!
"2005 approaches as I enter the kennels and place Aron’s collar and leash on him. Excited, Aron wags his tail and pulls toward the door not knowing that today changes from his normal routine of training and patrolling Kirtland AFB. Today is only known by his handler.
Aron, loaded into his kennel, is put on a truck headed to the airport. We travel for six days and finally arrive at Baghdad International Airport, Iraq. Still unaware of what lies ahead of us, unfamiliar smells and strange activities heighten Aron’s keen senses.
After a few nights of barking at every noise, we load up on a helicopter bound for Ba’Qubah, Iraq (Forward Operating Base Warhorse in the Diyala Province.) We landed late afternoon and were met by two handlers who were just completing their six month tours. Ours was just beginning. I unloaded my six bags and settled into our CHU (Coalition Housing Unit).
Both of us were anxious to take a walk and discover new things. Bounding out of the unit, he and I both begin to familiarize ourselves with the new surroundings. Aron checked out a small tree near the ball field and a ball field he will later discover is a great place to catch frisbees.
The second day yields our first mission. It is pitch black outside as I place the tracking harness around Aron’s midsection, as I had done numerous times before. I take him to the waiting HUMMWVand to his position in the rear seat. I sensed Aron’s hesitation with what I was asking of him and tell him, “Hup.” I can see him thinking. “In there? Where?” With guidance, encouragement and trust, he finally understands what I am asking of him. As I walked around to take my own seat next to him, he never took his eyes off of me. As the HUMMWV starts up everyone turns to look at Aron and questioned his excessive barking. I reply, “Yep, the whole time.”
We depart the safety of the base and head onto the Iraqi road. Aron sensed my nervousness and tried to get closer to me, possibly to comfort me or perhaps himself. After an hour of driving and barking, the HUMMVW stops and we get out. Soldiers eye Aron and me, possibly reminiscing about their own pets left back home, or perhaps wondering if this dog can actually find explosives. We learn the reason for our mission and wait our turn to do what we were sent here to do.
The night before, insurgents attacked an Iraqi police station killing a handful of police. I survey the area and come to conclude now this is real. I observe a black body bag containing an Iraqi police major by the road, ten yards from our staging area. On the road is a burned out Iraqi police truck. “Seek,” I command, as familiar training instantly sets in and Aron goes immediately to work. Over mounds of earth thick brush, Aron’s nose never comes higher than six inches off the ground, as he focuses on the odors surrounding him.
We ‘clear’ homes, vehicles and fields. Men, women and children huddle together next to a dirt wall outside their homes. I wanted so badly to gather the children and tell them ‘it’s alright’ and that we mean no harm. But my duty, and the fact I have a trained military dog, keeps me from approaching and taking the time. After eighteen hours of waiting and searching we return to the safety of our FOB (forward operation base.)
I soon realize I have a false sense of security when mortars start hitting the base around 0200. My heart races. I put on my helmet and flak vest and take cover in the corner of my CHU, which is reinforced with sand bags stacked four feet high. I pet Aron, calming him and myself. The loud explosions stop and it takes more than a few hours to settle back in bed.
Mission after mission, search after search, with only minimal results, we finally hit pay dirt. It is January, 2006 and after countless missions, this one I will never forget. We unload in a small village as I command “seek” through a palm grove. Aron goes straight to work. A proverbial smell strikes his nose and with a strong pull we dart through the foliage. Aron casts his nose into the air and responds, then looks to me for his reward, a red rubber ball. With encouragement I take him away from the shrubs that he just responded on, as numerous other soldiers with shovels and a metal detector close in on the vicinity of his response.
With only pats on his head, he still looks toward me to toss the red rubber ball. The metal detector goes off with a high pitch, indicating a ‘positive’ for metal under the dirt. They find nothing. With my twelve years of experience, I pulled Aron past the shrubs and back into the wind. Again he pulls and responds only 10 meters from the last location. He stares longingly for the red rubber ball, but to no avail. Then another high pitch from the metal detector. This time a thud from the shovel as a wooden crate was unearthed. A two foot by two foot box was discovered with seventeen pounds of Czech-made C-4 along with wires and numerous compact discs. Once confirmed, and only then, Aron is allowed to return and respond. His just reward, a simple, red rubber ball.
After weeks of familiarization, training, and missions in this new land, it begins to take on a sense of normalcy. We decide to head to the ball field for some much deserved exercise and play. I toss the Frisbee and Aron sprints across the field to retrieve it.
Our months of work together pass and again Aron is placed in his harness anticipating another mission. But this time it’s a final mission – a mission home. We head for a waiting helicopter. Nervousness sets and Aron detects a different demeanor from me, a sense of ease. He stares out of the window, hoping to see a passing pedestrian for a final bark.
After seven days of travel, we arrive in Albuquerque, New Mexico. There was no fanfare, no flag waving Americans, just the commander, kennel master and a handler to help load up the gear and Aron’s crate. Aron returns to the kennels to his excited four-legged co-workers and to fanfare in their own canine way. Aron barks at the dog in the kennel next to him and to the ones across, letting them know he’s back!
Days go by as Aron waits for me to return from leave. The door opens again and again to other handlers, but not his own. He eats and drinks and joins in barking sessions with his brethren. And then finally a door opens, and in anticipation, Aron looks around the corner of his kennel to see a familiar face. Jumping and whimpering for the gate to spring open, I place the collar and leash around his neck; he wags his tail and pulls toward the door.
Perhaps he is anticipating another mission and another HUMMWV ride. But this time it is to the training yard to catch a Frisbee on familiar ground. Pats on his head. A quiet, simple ceremony for a job well done.
Aron will never realize he may have saved the lives of numerous Iraqis and several comrades, just yearning for a simple, red rubber ball. Aron, a four year old German shepherd, a military working dog, not known to many, but know to one – his handler, his partner.
Thank you Aron.”
Black, Robert J., SSgt, USAF
Military working Dog Section