TREK NAWA, Afghanistan --
Many children beg their parents for a dog. The floppy ears and wagging tail seems to attract children to man’s best friend. But many parents know that caring for a dog means a lot of responsibility, training and effort.
Dog handlers in the Marine Corps not only shoulder those same responsibilities — they volunteer for it. Then take on the responsibilities of being deployed to Afghanistan as well.
A dog handler’s job can be exhausting, with an additional month of dog handler school, combined with months of predeployment training.
For Cpl. Jeffery Rodriguez, a dog handler with Weapons Company, 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, those responsibilities are more like a privilege.
Rodriguez said he loves being a dog handler. He knows he’s helping his squad, and the added responsibilities far outweigh the added attention of caring for a dog.
What sets Rodriguez apart from other dog handlers is the personal effort he puts into Dharma, a 4-year-old Labrador retriever.
“He’s the best dog handler I’ve ever seen,” said Sgt. Edward Welsh, Rodriguez’s squad leader. “He’s constantly taking care of the dog and working to make himself and Dharma better.”
Rodriguez, a native of Fayetteville, Ga., knows that a dog handler’s job is more than just patrolling with and feeding the dog. The most important job is ensuring the dog is well prepared for the deployment ahead.
Shortly after he arrived in Afghanistan he built Dharma a new kennel.
The kennel, made from discarded pieces of Hesko wall, has a door and a crate for Dharma to sleep in. He used excess cargo netting to cover half of the kennel to shield Dharma from the harsh wind and heat of Afghanistan.
Dharma, with her endless wagging tail and dark eyes, returns the favor with loyalty and obedience.
Rodriguez’s responsibilities extend farther than supplying Dharma with shelter. He works with Dharma to keep her skills sharp.
“He exercises the dog and whenever he goes running he takes the dog with him,” said Welsh, a native of Cleveland.
Keeping the dogs in shape is vital in an area where temperatures will reach more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
“If a dog gets out of breathe in 20 to 30 minutes, they actually become a hindrance to the unit,” said 1st Lt. Joseph Hoeksema, Rodriguez’s platoon commander. “Dharma is in shape, and (Rodriguez) works her out two to three times a day.”
Keeping Dharma in shape is a priority for Rodriguez. He laughingly said he can’t let the dog get fat.
Rodriguez continually trains Dharma. After patrols and after security posts, he trains her with commands to strengthen their communication.
The bond between a dog handler and his dog is based on trust. If a dog doesn’t trust the handler it won’t obey commands.
“He tells her to sit there and stay there, (and) she does it,” said Hoeksema, a native of Davenport, Iowa. “It doesn’t matter if we are getting shot at, she’s obeying (Rodriguez).”
Rodriguez has Dharma to help find improvised explosive devices and weapons caches.
“I use Dharma to search compounds, or to verify potentially dangerous objects,” said Rodriguez. “She’s like my little guardian angel running around.”
The Marines patrol with Dharma daily, clearing compounds and routes.
“Just trusting (Dharma) helps the Marines,” said Hoeksema. “When she goes into a compound and doesn’t find an IED, the Marines are able to walk in confident that there aren’t any IEDs.”
Dharma confirmed two IEDs and some hidden-away weapons while deployed; but beyond her keen nose, she’s made more of an impact on the Marines she protects.
Dharma also helps with morale of Marines who are away from their families for several months.
After patrolling, the Marines regularly pet and play with Dharma. They also laugh as she interacts with the local animals; goats and turkeys make an interesting find for a curious dog.
The sound of wings flapping and a loud gobble lets the squad know Dharma is up to some good-natured mischief.
Rodriguez lets it go for a little bit before calling Dharma back.
“It has been a great experience being a dog handler,” said Rodriguez. “It’s a great job to have with a lot of responsibility.”
The extra workouts and countless hours to keep Dharma’s training sharp are well worth the sacrifice when compared to the bond Rodriguez developed with Dharma. He considers her more than a dog. She is a friend, and a faithful one at that.
“She’s not much of a growler,” said Rodriguez. “She does get protective with me though, she’ll bark at someone if she thinks I’m in danger.”
In a couple of weeks, Rodriguez and Dharma will return home from their deployment to Afghanistan. This is Dharma’s first deployment and could be Rodriguez’s last.
They’ll return on the same flight but will then be separated. Dharma will be assigned a new dog handler, and Rodriguez will return to his squad.
Though he said the goodbye will be hard, Rodriguez shared that he loved every minute of being a dog handler. The bond he built with Dharma and the experience was well worth the extra responsibility.
“It’s hard not to think of Rodriguez and not think of Dharma too,” said Welsh. “They are like two peas in a pod.”
Rodriguez leaves Afghanistan with a four-legged friend and a lifelong bond.
“These dogs do work, so I’d want the next dog handlers to know to take it seriously,” said Rodriguez with a smile.
Editor’s note: Second Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, is part of Regimental Combat Team 5, 1st Marine Division (Forward), which works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Forces and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces and enabling ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its area of operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.