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And now a report on a soldier's best friend. They work in some of the most dangerous combat zones in Iraq. They sniff out roadside bombs. Sometimes they even take a bullet for their comrades. Gloria Hillard found several of these seasoned veterans back home at Camp Pendleton here in Southern California and filed this report.

GLORIA HILLARD:

Right now, Jerry, who has the rank of corporal, is not looking like such a tough Marine. In fact, he's trying to sit on another soldier's feet and is wagging his tail. Jerry, a Belgian Malinois, is the size of a small German shepherd. He's a young dog, but his eyes are already old, his muzzle white.

(Soundbite of dog panting)

Sergeant BENJAMIN MAPLE: They deploy and they come back. That's a rough time for them, and they're stressed out just like we get stressed out.

HILLARD: Marine Sergeant Benjamin Maple is a trainer at Camp Pendleton's canine unit. He earned his chops in Iraq. He's had three deployments, and yeah, he's seen a lot, he says. But when he talks to you about Star, one of his dogs, something changes in the Marine's eyes. Take the time on patrol, when the dog alerted him to a buried explosive.

Sgt. MAPLE: I almost walked on an IED, but he was ahead of me, and he saved my life, and he saved the lives of a couple Marines that were with me. So...

HILLARD: Star had taken the warning stance, blocking Sergeant Maple and two other Marines.

Sgt. MAPLE: That dog's seen more combat than - he puts me to shame.

HILLARD: To Maple, the dog is a hero.

Sgt. MAPLE: I actually named my daughter after him. I just had a baby girl, so - I got his name tattoo - his name tattooed on my arm, and...

HILLARD: Star did one more tour of duty in Iraq, but not with Sergeant Maple. Dogs can sometimes have more deployments and longer enlistments than their handlers and can be rotated from soldier to soldier.

Lance Corporal Justin Granado says that's the toughest part of being in the canine unit.

Lance Corporal JUSTIN GRANADO: You know, you come back and you spend those eight months with that dog and you come back and, you know, they can take you off that dog to put you with another dog, and it's - you spend all that time together, and you know, you go what you go through, and it's tough. You know, he sleeps with you every night, and you know, you do everything together, and you know, it's like taking your best friend away.

HILLARD: U.S. military working dogs have served in many capacities since World War I. About 1,000 dogs have been deployed since the beginning of the Iraq War. Three have been killed. Many more, along with their handlers, have been seriously wounded. They've taken bullets and shrapnel, but one of the biggest challenges for the dogs is the weather: blowing sand and scorching heat that can reach 130 degrees. Sergeant Maple says that's when the soldiers in the unit have their dogs' back.

Sgt. MAPLE: It gets to the point where a lot of the grunts help out. You're going on a 10-mile walking patrol, they'll come up - hey, we'll carry some water for your dog, and they'll spread...

HILLARD: The grassy obstacle course of Camp Pendleton's canine training unit is a far cry from Iraq or even Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, which is kind of like boot camp for the dogs. It's at Lackland where the dogs who, like all dogs, are sensitive to sounds, adjust to the intense noise of war: explosions, gunfire and helicopter rotors. Here the sound of helicopters is a distant hum over the hills, and the training has become like a game for the dogs.

Soon they'll be headed back to Iraq, the Marines and their dogs that they affectionately assign a rank above theirs.

Sgt. MAPLE: Stay. Stay, bud.

HILLARD: Recovering in a kennel is Arco, an 80-pound brown and black dog with searching eyes. Arco was the dog assigned to Sergeant Maple after his first dog, Star. Arco and Sergeant Maple spent two years in Iraq together. Maple puts his hand on the wire mesh, and Arco jumps up to lick it.

Sgt. MAPLE: Every time he looks at me, I like to think that he remembers.

HILLARD: When Arco is deployed again, it will be with another handler.

Sgt. MAPLE: Yeah, it's sad.

HILLARD: When we walk away from the kennel, the dog jumps on the chain link, straining to see us. Sergeant Maple says it's his hope that when Arco's tour is done, he'll be able to take him home.

Sgt. MAPLE: I know if he comes up for adoption, I'm going to be the first one calling here: Hey, I want that dog.

HILLARD: And by the look in the dog's eyes, that's something Arco would want as well. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.

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