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Old 09-14-2019, 03:15 PM
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Thumbs up Camp Pendleton’s Wardog agility course preps canines for life-saving military service

Camp Pendleton’s Wardog agility course preps canines for life-saving military service
By: ERIKA I. RITCHIE - Orange County Register - 9-14-19

Photo link:
Military Working Dog JD during a training session at Camp Pendleton on Thursday, Sep 12, 2019. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Lance Cpl. Hunter O’Brien took two-year-old Military Working Dog Sampson, a Belgian Malinois, through training paces on Thursday, Sept. 12, at Camp Pendleton’s Wardog agility course.

Slide show link:
Corporal Nathaniel Shartzer plays with Military Working Dog JD after a training session at Camp Pendleton on Thursday, Sep 12, 2019. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

The pair went through a series of obstacles including a window, an elevated catwalk and a tunnel at Military Working Dog Platoon War Dog kennels, where dogs are trained daily to work with obstacles that typically appear in the environment where they serve.

“The agility course works on the dogs’ stamina and precision,” said Master Sgt. Brian Burgess, the officer-in-charge for the Provost Marshall’s Office at the kennels. “The catwalk is a narrow, non-stable structure. It works on the dogs’ balance. The tunnel is like a culvert. These are probably the most challenging and the two most unnatural structures we have.”

Burgess watched as O’Brien worked Sampson through the structures — both are still being validated as a dog team for the Provost Marshall’s Office.

Sampson is among 54 Military Working Dogs at Camp Pendleton. He and 10 other dogs serve as part of the Provost Marshall’s Office, the police force that guards the sprawling base that covers 125,000 acres, including 17½ miles of shoreline.

Camp Pendleton is the West Coast’s premier expeditionary base and home to the 1st Marine Division and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. Security of the base is critical to the Marine Corps mission.

Forthy-three other dogs serve with the Law Enforcement Battalion and are in training for — or already are serving on — deployments to the Middle East and in other areas around the globe.

All Department of Defense military dogs are first trained by the Air Force at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and then sent to the military branch where they will serve. Dogs are trained for a number of tasks including search and rescue, bomb and drug detection, and security.

In all, there are about 280 dogs in the Marine Corps and about 2,300 serving military-wide.

Recently, Camp Pendleton’s dogs participated in an unveiling ceremony for a series of U.S. Postal Service stamps honoring military working dogs. The Forever stamps, released in August, feature images of four working dog breeds — German shepherd, Labrador retriever, Belgian Malinois and Dutch shepherd.

“As a military veteran and former law enforcement officer, I have the greatest appreciation for these animals and the service they provide,” said David Williams, vice chairman of the U.S. Postal Service Board of Governors, who served as the dedicating official for the ceremony on Aug. 1, when the stamps were released at the American Philatelic Society Stamp Show in Omaha, Neb.

“Today, these dogs are born and raised to serve alongside soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and women, and members of the Coast Guard,” he said. “They are heroes deserving of our respect and gratitude.”

But the U.S. Postal Service is not the only group paying tribute to military dogs.

On Sept. 11, four military working dogs were honored as 2019 recipients of American Humane’s K-9 Medal of Courage in a ceremony at Capitol Hill. Among them was an explosives detection dog named Sgt.Yeager, who is retired from the Marine Corps.

Sgt. Yeager participated in more than 100 patrols and discovered dozens of IEDs over three combat deployments. On April 12, 2012, he was hit by shrapnel while on deployment in Afghanistan and later lost part of his ear. He was awarded the Purple Heart for his injuries.

The explosion took the life of his handler, Lance Cpl. Abraham Tarwoe.

For Burgess, 38, the tribute to the military work dogs seems as fitting as for any Marine who acted heroically and deserves recognition. A career Marine of nearly 20 years, Burgess has spent most of his time in service “handling the leash.”

“There are significant memorials that we have,” Burgess said, referring to one at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Va., and plaques and a garden at Camp Pendleton. “Going on a stamp opens it up to not just military but memorializes the military working dog for everyone. They should be thought of as a four-legged Marine — no more no less.”

Lucca, a specialized search dog from Camp Pendleton who recently died, is among the Marine Corps’ most heroic dogs and is honored with a photo and inscription at the kennels on base.

She drew national attention to the role Military Working Dogs play when, in April 2016, she was awarded the Dickin Medal, the highest honor an animal can receive for military service. The British honor was presented at Wellington Barracks near Buckingham Palace.

Lucca was cited for 400 successful missions protecting the lives of thousands of troops during her six years of service. No soldiers or Marines died on her patrols.

Burgess, a Texas native, joined the Marine Corps with a plan to become a dog handler. After basic training, he went to military police school and then to dog handler training.

He first served as a dog handler at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C., where he handled and trained dogs for Marine Helicopter Squadron 1 which provided transport and security for President George W. Bush. He also served with dogs in three combat operations to the Middle East.

“Handling a bomb dog in Eastern Ramadi doing combat operations when streets are littered with 500-pound bombs, you can imagine the carnage,” he said. “You train for that your whole career — when your dog sits on a rock pile you know that dog’s response means there are explosives. I have a whole platoon of folks behind me depending on me to be the mine detector and creating a clear path. The pressure put on that guy, there are no words to explain that. When you’re right you save lives, when you’re wrong, you get someone killed.”

Back at the agility course, Cpl. Nathaniel Shartzer was working with MWD JD, a yellow labrador. JD, a specialized search dog and Shartzer are training for an upcoming deployment. The two are part of the Law Enforcement Battalion.

“He’ll look for explosives on roadways, in buildings, open areas and in vehicles,” Shartzer explained, as he tossed a tennis ball to the young dog.

The two train on the obstacle course daily. They also participate in drills that help JD learn directional commands from a distance. On their off time, Shartzer said JD is like a regular family dog.

“He’s like a puppy,” he said. “He’s so easy to control. And, if you want to cuddle, he loves it.”

Those who work with the military working dogs say the teams are indispensable assets to the Marine Corps.

“They give commanders the best explosive and drug detection capabilities available,” Burgess said. “The bond betweenthe two is of utmost importance to ensure the trust that both will get the mission done and that they will keep each other safe.”

O Almighty Lord God, who neither slumberest nor sleepest; Protect and assist, we beseech thee, all those who at home or abroad, by land, by sea, or in the air, are serving this country, that they, being armed with thy defence, may be preserved evermore in all perils; and being filled with wisdom and girded with strength, may do their duty to thy honour and glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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