KHAN NESHIN DISTRICT, Afghanistan -- A team of two jumped out of the vehicle as it came to a stop at a chokepoint on the road.
While Ace, an improvised explosive device detection dog, wandered around the vehicle, Cpl. Sean Grady, Ace’s handler and a pointman with Echo Company, 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, began preparing his sickle and combat metal detector.
The pair then proceeded with what they do best: clearing a safe path for their fellow Marines.
They moved down the road in a carefully choreographed dance, methodically searching for the disguised and dangerous devices. Grady, a 27-year-old native of Otho, Iowa, launched Ace forward with an array of hand signals and verbal commands, while he swept the path with his CMD.
Grady’s choice to enlist in the Marine Corps was influenced by the loss of a best friend, Sgt. Jon Bonnell, who sacrificed his life in Al Anbar Province, Iraq in 2008 while serving with 1st Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment.
“He was one of my best friends in high school,” said Grady, who graduated with Bonnell from Fort Dodge Senior High School.
Being the pointman for his platoon requires Grady to efficiently utilize all of his tools. With his sickle, CMD, combat experience and Ace’s skills, a complete IED detection team is effectively leading the platoon.
“I volunteered to be a pointman during this deployment,” said Grady. “The only thing I care about is keeping my Marines safe.”
Grady considers their tactical approach atypical. While most dog handlers are usually positioned farther back in a patrol, Grady saw that having Ace at the front of his platoon would greatly enhance their ability to find IEDs.
“As a dog handler, most of the time we’re in the back of the patrol,” said Grady. “They only call us up when they see suspicious things on the road, or when the pointman needs to confirm something.”
“I was a pointman on my last deployment, and I know the danger that comes with dealing with IEDs, and didn’t want anyone else dealing with that,” explained Grady, who previously served in Afghanistan in 2010.
The team’s unusual method has produced uncanny results, with their 16 IED finds since arriving in southern Helmand in October 2011 being the highest of any IED detection team in the battalion.
“Ace has found five IEDs, and also confirmed three suspicious hits,” said Grady. “I’ve found seven during our time here.”
In addition to the tools of his trade, Grady credits tactical decision games – a basic skill set taught to all infantrymen – for much of his success in Khan Neshin.
“In my head during a patrol, I’ll go through my TDGs,” explained Grady. “I ask myself, ‘If I was the Taliban, where’s the best place to put the IEDs?’”
“I would look around the area and focus my attention where I think the enemy would put the IED,” he added.
Grady recalled an incident, where he found an IED using lessons learned from conducting TDGs. He used his sickle to investigate what he figured was a suspicious spot on the road, and uncovered a bucket filled with 50 pounds of explosives.
Grady and Ace have been teammates since July 2011, after Grady attended the Marine Corp’s dog handling course. He was amazed by Ace’s obedience and the skills he had acquired from training with K2 Solutions Inc., before they were partnered together.
“It blew my mind how disciplined Ace was, the amount of different explosive scents that he could recognized, and how useful his skill can be in the field,” Grady explained.
“He’s a superb dog and he helps me do my job,” he added. “I wasn’t really aware of how amazing the Marine Corps dog handler’s program is until I met Ace.”
Just as he was taught in boot camp and infantry training, Grady keeps his weapons, tools and skills well maintained. He stressed that constantly training Ace is what keeps him sharp and disciplined when they are out on patrol.
“We keep up with his obedience and reset training to make sure he keeps his skills and stays on his game,” explained Grady.
“It’s hard, because I want to love him as a pet but I have to treat him as tool as well, because of the skills he has,” said Grady. “I’m constantly on that fine line of being his friend and master.”
As 1st LAR’s deployment comes to a close, Grady and Ace look to keep their platoon’s path home safe and IED free.