Afghanistan

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

NPR's Sean Carberry recently made his own trip to the visit the troops. He embedded with this U.S. soldiers of Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan. And on a rainy afternoon, during that assignment, he took time to visit some of the friendliest members of the army.

SPECIALIST HEATH GARCIA: Sit. Say, hello.

(SOUNDBITE OF A DOG BARK)

GARCIA: Say hello.

(SOUNDBITE OF A DOG BARK)

GARCIA: Oh, good girl.

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: Lucy is a stereotypically giddy black Labradoodle. She's not what you picture when you think of a military dog serving on the front lines in Afghanistan. She wiggles around the room chasing her tennis ball and also thinks my microphone cover is a chew toy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUCY)

CARBERRY: But her handler, Specialist Heath Garcia, says when Lucy's on a mission, she's all business. She's highly trained to sniff out Improvised Explosive Devices, which are the number one killer of civilians and troops in Afghanistan.

GARCIA: I always tell the guys that work the mine detectors, hey, you can pick up metal I can't. I can pick up explosives you can't. So if you want to do a coin flip, see who wants to be in the front, let's do it.'

CARBERRY: And Lucy has shown she deserves to be out front on patrols and road clearing missions. In her 10 months in Kandahar, she's found four different IEDs.

GARCIA: Her finding those is amazing because there's a lot of dog handlers that come here and don't find anything.

CARBERRY: There are seven dog teams here at Forward Operating Base Frontenac. While they have outside kennels, on cold rainy days like this, the troops usually keep the dogs in their rooms.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPECIALIST GARCIA AND LUCY)

GARCIA: Come here. Hey, come on.

CARBERRY: Military Police Sergeant Hancock brings out his dog, Nero. He's a stunning Dutch Shepherd with dark tiger-like markings. Unlike Lucy, Nero is also trained to attack, but he comes across as a big softie. Sergeant Hancock worked with another dog before this assignment, but he jumped at the chance to grab Nero.

SERGEANT HANCOCK: Just because he was a strong dog, he was unassigned, so I don't really gamble. I'm going to take the best dog to come down here and deploy with.

CARBERRY: He says Dutch Shepherds aren't that common in the field but they're fabulous working dogs.

HANCOCK: Real high drive, high energy dogs which are good 'cause I pretty much have to tell him to take a break. And there are some dogs out there, they'll try to take their own breaks and stuff like that. So...

CARBERRY: Hancock says one of the most challenging and important aspects of being a dog handler is learning each dog's personality. He's worked with eight different dogs in five years, though several had to retire early - mostly German Shepherds that developed health problems.

While we talk, one of the other soldiers hides a vile of explosive material in the tent.

HANCOCK: See, he's already in work mode.

Ready to work?

CARBERRY: Sergeant Hancock lets Nero loose and he immediately works the room.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)

CARBERRY: He fixes on a spot in the corner of the tent.

HANCOCK: That's a good boy.

CARBERRY: Success. Sergeant Hancock says these dogs are highly trained and effective, but not infallible.

HANCOCK: There's no dog that's 100 percent. So you can't take it for granted that just because they searched, it's clear.

CARBERRY: But they have been a critical resource in a war where insurgents are planting more and more IEDs. They can search places that high-tech equipment simply can't. Plus, they make being deployed a lot more enjoyable.

HANCOCK: I love this job. I couldn't imagine anything funner than this. So...

(SOUNDBITE OF SERGEANT HANCOCK AND NERO)

CARBERRY: Sean Carberry, NPR News.

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