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Duty going to the dogs in Iraq

23 Apr 2004 | Lance Cpl. Macario P. Mora Jr.

CAMP AL ASAD, Iraq - Oscar isn't what most Marines would call a team player.

"That dog is unlike the others," said Pfc. Theodore J. Randolph, a provisional military policeman for Regimental Combat Team 7.  "You think he's nice but in an instance he'll turn on you.  He's a lot like Cpl. Harwell."

Cpl. Gary D. Harwell should know.  He's a K-9 handler for RCT-7 who's known Oscar for a while.  Harwell and Oscar, a black Belgian Malinios, perform a variety of duties including vehicle and personnel searches, security and being straight out intimidating.

It's a match of personalities cemented through time and training.  Harwell knows his moods, his likes and dislikes and knows... well, that the dog is sometime just like his master.

"These dogs are just like humans," Harwell said.  "Just like in school you have nerdy ones, the fat kid ones and the bullies.  Oscar is a bully.  He's the bully of bullies."

Randolph, from Cincinnati, said Oscar's just plain mean.

"Yeah we're both alike," Harwell said.

They're teamed like many duos - based on personality and abilities - complimenting each other in every way.  They eat, sleep and spend every waking moment with the other, better preparing themselves for the rigors of duty in Iraq.

"I love dealing with them," said Harwell.  "I did this as a civilian, but these animals in the military are much better trained."

Harwell was part of K-9 unit before joining the Marine Corps.  Working with dogs in the Marine Corps, though, is a bit different.  For instance, Harwell and Oscar are only one of fewer than 150 Marine-dog teams in the Corps.

"This is a secondary MOS," Harwell said.  "I'm really lucky to be doing this.  Oscar means a lot to me.  He's like my child."

Sgt. Charlie H. Clawson, embark and supply chief for the military police company from Alexandria, Va. said they were more like brothers.

"I see them together all the time," Clawson said.  "They're like more like brothers than father and son.  Both have the same personality."

Harwell admitted to the accusations saying the teams are put together based on personality.

Clawson said if Oscar was in a pack of dogs, he'd be the alpha male.  Not only is Oscar the meanest of the bunch but also the best trained.

"Oscar is really smart," Randolph added.  "He does any and everything Cpl. Harwell asks him to do with out hesitation."

The dogs go through a "doggie boot camp" at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Harwell explained. They're trained to become proficient in tracking ordnance and searching people for explosives.

"It's a lot like boot camp for us," Harwell said.  "They go there to learn the basics, but it isn't until you hit the Fleet when you really start the learning process."

Military working dog teams, or K-9 units, are spread throughout Iraq from the Syrian border to Fallujah working or training everyday.

"When we don't work, we train," Harwell said.  "It's a constant struggle keeping the dogs trained up and ready to go at a moment's notice.  We never know when we'll be going somewhere.  I guess that's kind of the fun."

The team has already been successful since hitting the hard dirt of Iraq.

"They really impressed them the other day," Clawson said of a recent demonstration.  "They hid Oscar in a room and then I hid a small hand grenade in a field a few hundred yards away.  Oscar found it in less then a minute.'

While not fully credited with the captures and findings of explosives, Oscar has deterred suspected terrorists.  It's his intimidating look the dog maintains that keep most suspects on their toes.

"They absolutely hate them, but most don't mind being searched," Clawson explained.  "Several times already we've seen many men turn and head the way they came from, making us believe Oscar's stopped many instances before they even happened."

Harwell and Oscar have worked together for more than a year, making their duty look easy.  The bond and relationship is as strong as any good friendship could be, Harwell explained.

"I trust Oscar more than anyone, man or animal," Harwell said.  "Just the same, Oscar listens to no one but me.  He'll do anything I ask of him and he's always there.  You can't ask for more than that from anyone."

According to Harwell, Oscar is the best dog with whom he's trained.

"Not only the best dog I've worked with," said Harwell.  "But the best person I've ever worked with.  We understand each other."