When Tech. Sgt. Joseph Throgmorton volunteered for a kennel master job at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, several months ago, he had no idea it would be what he describes as "probably the most complicated and the most stressful job I've had in my 13-and-a-half years (of service)."
The kennel master from the 75th Security Forces Squadron Military Working Dog Unit here did not know what his mission would be until he arrived at JBB last January. When Throgmorton arrived there with his dog teams, he quickly learned there were several missions, and the largest of those missions would be to stand up a kennel for the 332nd Expeditionary Security Forces Group.
"When I got there, I realized we were starting from scratch," Throgmorton said. "We were the first Air Force dog teams to be assigned to Joint Base Balad."
The joint forces base had an existing kennel operated by the Army military working dog units and the original plan was to build an extension to that kennel for the 332nd ESFG to operate from.
"Even though there was already an Army kennel established on the base, since our security forces group handled security on the base both inside and out, they saw a need to have dogs with the (Air Force) patrols and to minimize threats to the other squads patrolling outside (the perimeter) of the base," Throgmorton said. "They were originally planning to spend more money extending on to the existing Army kennel, but when I got there I gave them this idea which was a much cheaper option."
Throgmorton proposed to build a separate kennel and training area for the 332nd ESFG MWD unit out of existing unused structures, and members of his squadron helped with some of the building and assembling of the kennels. They erected a fence around the kennel area to have a training area, which was quickly utilized by the teams.
"Once we realized that we would be doing outside-the-wire missions and leading patrols, within the first two weeks we spent morning, day and night training with buried ordnance and getting the dogs used to working long hours," Throgmorton said.
"The handlers there stayed extremely busy," he said. When they were not assisting with the stand up of the new kennels, the dog teams had their primary missions to focus on.
"There were two squadrons under our group and it was our job to provide dogs to both squadrons, whether it be to the 332nd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron to provide counter-narcotics or explosive detection or to the 532nd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron who would provide outside-the-wire activities like finding weapons caches and things like that," Throgmorton said. "One day they could be working for the 332nd and work a 12 hour shift and the next day they could be attached to the 532nd and be attached to a mission outside the wire."
When the dog teams had the occasional break, work would still follow them home.
One on one
As there were not operational kennels for the dogs to stay in when they were not working in the field, the dogs stayed with their handlers in their security housing units. The handlers had to take their dogs with them everywhere and when the handler wanted to eat at the dining facility, he either had to place the dog in a portable kennel in his room and hope the dog did not disturb his next-door-neighbor, or he had to ask another handler to "babysit" for him. The handlers were also responsible for exercising their dogs and maintaining the dog's strict training routine, even on the handler's day off, as well as assisting the dog with answering nature's call regardless of the handler's convenience.
"The first couple of months were trying because he was still a young pup and we were both getting used to the deployment," said Staff Sgt. Meredith Clement, 75th SFS MWD handler, who spent the last six months with her dog, Basco, at JBB. "But now it is hard for me to be away from him. Last night was the first night I have been away from him since January, and it was a little rough."
Clement said the upside to spending 24 hours a day with her dog helped her to understand Basco's traits and personalities, but she and Throgmorton still see the overarching advantages to keeping the dogs in a centralized kennel.
"It is easier to oversee all dogs if they are in one place and keeping a healthy living environment for them," Throgmorton said. "However, the handlers did a good job taking care of the dogs and everything worked out really well. Also, having the dogs living with the handlers made it easier to send the team out on a mission because the handler would already be with the dog."
The kennels were scheduled to open before Clement returned to Hill Air Force Base, but she reports that plumbing and electrical issues barred the timely operation of the kennels before her return. Throgmorton believes the issues will be resolved and the kennels will be opened shortly, and they will remain in operation until the closure of JBB.
Throgmorton's team was also involved in starting two other missions at JBB: assisting the U.S. Customs Service with detecting outbound cargo for weapons and narcotics in order to expedite the customs process for returning military members, and starting the animal-assisted medical therapy project called the K-9 Visitation Program at the base's Air Force Theater Hospital.
The latter program began mid-May at the AFTH and was scheduled to perform rehabilitative visits to the hospital twice per month, depending upon the handler's schedule. The program also involved giving the hospital's medical staff a K-9 demonstration to educate them about the security force's mission. Likewise, the 332nd ESFG team shadowed the medical staff to understand their mission and see their common goals in the AOR.
The Air Force MWDs helped with many morale activities on base, including providing K-9 demonstrations for more than 500 people in celebration of National Police Week 2009 held in May. "For the first time at Balad, we celebrated Police Week and we provided the K-9 demonstrations," Clement said.
Clement and Basco also assisted in the U.S. Customs search and reported zero findings during their deployment.
"It was good all around that we did not have any finds," Clement said, as it demonstrated a level of compliance by their fellow military members.
The 332nd ESFG dog teams had many missions, and that was primarily due to the great need the base had for the military working dogs, Throgmorton said.
"A lot of the dog teams there put forth great effort while deployed there," he said. "They would work back-to-back missions and never complain because they knew they were making a great impact."
Although this was the most challenging project thus far in Throgmorton's career, he said it was also the most rewarding.
"I had handlers knock on my door at night telling me they found a weapons cache or mortar, and one mortar found is one less mortar that would be used against us," he said.
During his deployment, Throgmorton's dog teams found eight weapons caches and two improvised explosive devices before they had a chance to detonate. Throgmorton added that his dog teams completed more than 30 combat missions for a total of more than 200 hours.