HILL AIR FORCE BASE — There are only nine members in an elite group of Airmen who conduct specialized training nearly every day on a small field near the northwest corner of Hill Air Force Base.
They are the world’s best at patrol, drug and explosives detection and other specialized missions that only they can perform. Their knife-sharp precision and skill has been honed after hours and hours of repetitive labor. Only the best of the best make it to their lofty status in the military. And all of them have four legs.
They are the military working dogs of Hill’s 75th Security Forces Squadron. MWDs can detect trace amounts of almost any substance, a handy skill during missions when drugs and bombs are involved.
Sgt. Paul Baldwin, the 75th SFS Kennel Master, said the nine dogs at Hill are trained to deploy and work in combat scenarios, but they also perform a variety of tasks on base — from responding to police calls and building alarms, to conducting random searches at base security gates, parking lots and dormitories.
“Some people might think they are only used at (deployed locations),” he said. “But they’re working every day here on base.”
MWDs have been in the spotlight lately with the movie “Max,” an adventure film playing at theaters nationwide about a Malinois shepherd that’s embedded with U.S. Marines in Afghanistan. The film has grossed more than $12 million so far, according to Box Office Mojo.
Although the dogs are just now getting the official Hollywood treatment, they’ve been a vital part of military defense for decades.
Baldwin said the most common breed for MWDs are the German shepherd and the Belgian malinois. Hill has those two breeds among their nine dogs and also has Dutch shepherds.
The dogs that operate in military and security roles, whether it’s in the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines, are all trained at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio — the only United States facility that currently trains dogs for military use. The dogs are either “single-purposed,” which means they’re trained only in detection, or “dual-purpose,” trained to both detect and bite.
Normally at about 2 years old, the dogs are paired with a single individual, called the dog’s handler, following their training. Baldwin said dog and handler pairings aren’t random.
“Dogs, just like people, have very distinct personalities,” he said. “So we try to pair the right dogs with the right handlers so it’s a good fit on both sides.”
The dogs stay with their handlers anywhere from one to three years.
Sgt. Chad Bunda works with a 2-year-old, dual-purposed German shepherd named Bastas. He says the old cliche of dog being man’s best friend is quickly realized in the MWD world.
“I enjoy coming into work every day,” Bunda said. “We put a lot of time into these dogs and when you work together that much, it’s hard not to become attached. We love our dogs and they reciprocate those feelings. It’s just a really rewarding experience.”
Last week, Bunda and Baldwin worked with Bastas, leading the dog through a variety of drills, including one where Baldwin played the role of perpetrator.
Listening closely to Bunda’s commands, Bastas would run at Baldwin and either lunge at him and lock jaw on his arm, or when Baldwin submitted, stop just short of him and stand still.
“It’s a lot of work,” an exasperated Baldwin said, after donning a bite suit and being tugged around by Bastas. “But it’s fun and it’s worth it.”
After Sgt. Chris Keilman works with the MWDs on base, he goes home to his dog Kira.
In 2008-2009, the now 10-year-old Kira served by Keilman’s side during a combat deployment to Afghanistan. The two were separated for two years, but once Kira was retired from military work, Keilman flew to Texas and adopted her as his own.
“She’s just my dog,” Keilman said. “I don’t know how to say it other than that. When I was in Afghanistan, I never worried about whether or not that dog would take care of me, or if she would take one for me. That’s the kind of relationship most of us have with the dogs we work with. Once that bond is formed, it’s unbreakable.”