JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq — On a deployment, a multitude of distractions can make sleep challenging for some servicemembers: F-16 engines roar on the flight line, helicopter blades thunder through the air.
Seventy-pound Labrador retrievers take up half the bed.
For Air Force and Army military working dog handlers at JBB, the deployed environment requires not only working, but living with a canine comrade.
"Military working dogs normally stay in a kennel when not training or working," said Air Force Staff Sgt. Melinda Miller, 732nd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron dog handler. "But not all deployed bases have the hardened facilities to accommodate that. So, the dogs stay in field tents or in (contained housing units). Here, the dogs stay with their handlers in their CHUs."
These German shepherds, Belgian Malinois and Labrador retrievers spend at least four hours a day working outside with their handlers. Their mission includes performing explosives and narcotics detection as well as patrol, both in and outside the wire. They can also attack on command to protect themselves or their handlers.
According to the humans, the doggie down-time also aids the joint mission.
"The time we spend with our dogs playing and relaxing really helps to build rapport," said Spc. Chris Belleville, 25th Infantry Division specialized search dog handler. "That makes the dogs trust us even more; therefore, they work harder for us. While we look at these dogs as Soldiers, it's important to understand they are still dogs. They look for that attention and affection. When you have the chance to relax after work and give them that, they fall in love with you."
Belleville said certain breeds of these tail-wagging warriors lend themselves to be more skilled as MWDs.
For example, German and Dutch shepherds and Belgian Malinois are chosen for their combination of aggression, intelligence, loyalty and athleticism. Labrador retrievers are often chosen as "off-leash," specialized search dogs for their acute sense of smell and temperament.
"These dogs, especially the detection dogs' sense of smell, provide us a capability that nothing can replicate," said Tech. Sgt. Jerome Vahalik, 732nd ESFS military working dog program manager. "They are also a means of providing a psychological deterrent like no other, stopping harm from being done to the war-fighter."
These dogs, which deploy with their handlers, are also helping in ways not associated with conflict.
"It's a great feeling every day," said Miller, whose MWD is a nine-year old German shepherd. "Max wakes me up every morning. It's great to always have a companion. You go out and meet friends while you're here, but nothing compares to the loyalty of your dog. They're always there for you no matter what and are great to have around — despite the chewed-up sneakers."