SOLDIER STORIES: Dog of war pays ultimate sacrifice.
Master-at-Arms First Class Leroy Williams Jr. and Dinomt, an explosive detection certified MWD, in Afghanistan in 2012.
(Article by freelance writer Elliot Garber, published in NY Times 31 JUL 2013. Elliott Garber is a veterinarian and active duty Army officer stationed in Italy. You can find more of his writing about military working dogs on his blog and follow him on Twitter.)
The silence was what surprised him most. As the earth erupted in a puff of smoke just three feet away, Master-at-Arms First Class Leroy Williams Jr. found himself flying backward in an angry cloud of dirt and debris.
There was no roaring boom, no fiery explosion, he recalled later, just a detached curiosity about the novel situation in which he suddenly found himself.
Petty Officer Williams, a Navy dog handler, hit the ground with a smack 20 feet back. He popped up and started running forward again, his mind beginning to clear even as an intense ringing started up in his ears.
As he ran, he could think only about trying to find his dog, Dinomt, and the explosive ordnance disposal technician that had been walking with them. He saw the technician moving his head and saying something he could not hear. It looked like both his legs were missing in the pile of debris around the site of the blast.
He followed the leash to where the 90-pound dog’s body lay twitching in the dirt, but there was something wrong with the picture.
Dinomt’s head and neck had been blown off.
I heard about Dinomt’s death that same evening when one of my Army veterinary technicians called me with the news. I thought back to the predeployment exam I had done six months earlier on Dinomt, a handsome, intelligent 3-year-old black German shepherd in the prime of his life.
Petty Officer Williams returned to Sicily a month later, and I gave him an awkward welcome one crisp morning when we happened to cross paths outside the bank. I wanted to hear the details of what had happened, but I did not know if he was ready to share his story yet.
It was not until he was awarded the Purple Heart recently that I revisited the idea of asking him about Dinomt. Petty Officer Williams was recognized by the commanding officer of the Sigonella naval air station in Sicily for the injuries he suffered in the bomb blast last fall. It was a very public ceremony, and he exuded a quiet calm that made me think now might be the time.
Over coffee, he told me the story.
“I just stayed there with my dog and started crying,” he said. “I’m looking at my best friend lying on the ground with no head.” He gazed into his cappuccino. “It still haunts me.”
Military dog handlers spend almost 24 hours a day with their canine partners for months on end while deployed in combat zones. This closeness tends to produce the powerfully trusting relationship that is necessary for them to be successful in high-intensity situations. The handler must have the utmost confidence in both his dog’s abilities and his own ability to correctly interpret the animal’s communications.
After a month of mandatory predeployment training for military working dog teams in Yuma, Arizona, Petty Officer Williams and Dinomt flew to Afghanistan. The team was initially assigned to a big base in Kandahar to help manage the dog training and certification program for the whole region.
The first few weeks of the deployment went by smoothly. Then Petty Officer Williams got a dreaded phone call. A close friend and fellow Navy dog handler, Sean Brazas, had been killed by enemy fire. The petty officer knew he needed a change of scene.
For many, that change might have been a desk job, or even an early exit from Afghanistan. But not Petty Officer Williams. He wanted to get further out on the combat front. He knew Dinomt was good, and he wanted to be at the proverbial tip of the spear. He would honor the memory of his friend by stepping into his place.
A month later, he got another call. This time it was about Mike Brodsky, one of the four Navy dog handlers who had trained at Yuma together and arrived in Afghanistan at the same time that spring. He had died from injuries from a roadside bomb blast.
Petty Officer Williams repeated his request, and this time he got what he wanted. He and Dinomt were sent to Forward Operating Base Masum Ghar, a smaller outpost that had a high number of casualties in the previous few months.
Petty Officer Williams and Dinomt found nine buried bombs in two months of almost constant foot patrols around Masum Ghar. They also discovered and helped capture three insurgent bomb makers surrounded by over 500 pounds of explosives in a hidden dugout. These finds almost certainly saved the lives of numerous American service members and Afghan civilians, who are the more frequent victims of these devices.
But why didn’t Dinomt find the bomb that took his life?
The investigation of the blast showed that the homemade bomb was buried deeper than most. This discovery, combined with the fact that it had most likely been hidden weeks or even months before, meant that it might not have had enough residual scent for even Dinomt’s incredibly sensitive nose. Although military working dogs do not find 100 percent of their target odors, they are still much more successful than any device that has been invented for the same task.
Everyone agrees that Dinomt’s body took the full force of the blast, protecting the soldiers from the more catastrophic damage that would be expected with a bomb of that size. The explosives technician was the most severely wounded, but his legs were saved. They had been buried in the rubble but not blown off as Petty Officer Williams initially assumed.
“So do you think you’ll ever want to handle a working dog again?” I asked the petty officer as our conversation drew to a close.
He jumped in before I could even finish the question, nodding his head assertively. “Yes. Oh yes. I’d go back to Afghanistan if they asked me.”
“Really, there’s not a barrier in your mind now, after everything that happened last year?”
“No, that’s my job. I would be doing Sean’s memory, and Mike’s memory, and Dinomt’s memory a disservice if I were asked to go again and said no.”
He looked at me through thick-rimmed glasses framing his deep brown eyes. The sincerity in his expression was obvious. A scruffy beard and the flat-billed Detroit Tigers cap perched on his forehead disguised his true identity as a decorated combat veteran from the lunch crowd around us. But I knew better.
After a fleeting silence, he said, “They all gave the ultimate sacrifice so that I can sit here and talk to you today.”
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