TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. As a dog handler in the Marines, it was the job of my guest Jose Armenta to walk ahead of his platoon, searching for IEDs with his dog Zenit, a German shepherd trained for explosive detection and patrol. On a mission in Afghanistan in 2011, searching for IEDs planted by the Taliban, an IED they didn't detect exploded. Armenta was thrown 20 feet. He narrowly survived, but both legs had to be amputated above the knee.
Zenit was uninjured and was redeployed with a new handler. Armenta was surprised by how much he missed his canine partner and embarked on a long process to adopt him. He finally succeeded. Armenta not only has his dog, he and his wife now have a baby. Jose Armenta is profiled in the National Geographic's June cover story "Hero Dogs."
Jose Armenta, welcome to FRESH AIR. So can you describe what the process you used was for searching for IEDs with your dog?
JOSE ARMENTA: Yeah, I can't get into too much detail.
GROSS: Oh, because you don't want to give anything away?
ARMENTA: That's correct. You don't want to give away too many of our training techniques or working techniques.
GROSS: Yes, good point.
ARMENTA: But it involved searching in patterns that we trained to do and to cover danger areas that we may cross while on a mission to find IEDs.
GROSS: Now am I right in saying that when you'd find a path that was safe, because you'd stepped each way on that path, that you'd outline it with shaving cream?
ARMENTA: That's correct. Or...
GROSS: Why shaving cream?
ARMENTA: Well, shaving cream kind of glow in the dark with our night vision goggles.
GROSS: Oh. Do you put anything special in it for that, or does it just do that?
ARMENTA: No, just something in the chemical, some of the chemicals in that kind of glowed in the dark. So at night we would be able to see it for a certain time period before it kind of faded away.
GROSS: So I have to say the job that you took seems like, you know, and it obviously is an incredibly dangerous and stressful job. Did you volunteer for that work, or were you assigned to that work?
ARMENTA: Volunteered. I mean, naturally there was some doubts. It's really a stressful job. But kind of like the story in National Geographic said, it's just the constant fear of not performing 100 percent and one of your brothers dying or getting injured because of that. It's constantly on your mind.
GROSS: Now did you get to choose Zenit as your dog partner?
ARMENTA: Yeah. Sometimes you're able to choose your dog. I was fortunate enough to be able to choose him, not knowing anything about their skill set at that point because I just got there. So I just strictly went off of the breed and what I wanted to work with.
GROSS: So when you went on a mission with your dog partner Zenit, you knew the mission was really dangerous. You know what's at stake, and you know the importance of the mission. The dog doesn't really know that, right?
ARMENTA: No, all he knows if he accomplishes the task given, he'll get a toy, a reward at the end. So that's why it's really important for our dogs that we use to have high drive. They need to really love the game. That's what it is to them is the game. And they know if they complete the game, they do it right, they'll get a toy at the end of it. So that's all they have on their mind is just to get that toy.
GROSS: So you're in a field of IEDs, searching for them, and you know that after that's over, you're supposed to give a toy to your dog. What kind of toys did you carry with you?
ARMENTA: Well, every dog is a little different. Zenit, he loves KONGs. So I carried a KONG with a rope tied on it, so I could play tug of war after he...
GROSS: OK, excuse my ignorance. What's a KONG?
ARMENTA: A KONG is a rubber cone-shaped toy is the best way I could describe it. It's got a...
GROSS: So you're probably the only guy in the platoon who's carrying toys in...
ARMENTA: That's correct. I'm the only guy carrying toys and dog treats.
GROSS: Is it a lot of extra work to have a dog as a partner in a war zone? Like when you were in Afghanistan, what did you have to do to take care of Zenit?
ARMENTA: Well, it is a lot of extra work. In my opinion, taking care of a dog is kind of like taking care of a child. You have to feed it, bathe it, groom it, make sure it stays safe. And so you - we have to do all of that in a combat zone. So not only the other stress of just combat, but now you have to take care of this dog, who doesn't know how to take care of himself.
You have to take care of him, so taking his temperature periodically throughout the day to make sure he's not overheating because of the extreme conditions, trimming his nails, carrying his food and water for missions. So it entails a lot of tasks.
GROSS: I know it's very difficult for soldiers to deal with the heat in Afghanistan and Iraq. What about dogs?
ARMENTA: Oh yeah, yeah, they don't like the heat and especially when it's 100-plus degrees, and the sand is really hot, and you can feel it through your boots, and they're out there barefoot. A lot of times we'll try to throw on some booties, which are little shoes for dogs to try to alleviate that heat, but a lot of times they don't like wearing those, either.
So fortunately for us, we didn't work in the desert environment, which is really hard on the dogs. We worked in a kind of a green zone is what we call it, which is close to the Helmand River, one of the biggest rivers in our area of operation. So there was a lot of vegetation, and that kind of took some of the heat off of him.
But wearing that fur coat is not easy on the dogs in that kind of heat.
GROSS: How do you keep the dog hydrated?
ARMENTA: Oh, I used to put IVs in him. I'd give him IV fluid to hydrate him, make sure he's hydrated, and then we'd take breaks.
GROSS: This is in between working?
ARMENTA: This was prior to our mission. So if I knew we were going to be out for an extended period of time, I might throw an IV in him, make sure he's hydrated. And then while on the mission, let's say two hours go by, and it's really hot, and I can see he's getting tired, we'll take a break, I'll give him some water.
If we're close to a canal with water, I'll let him go for a little swim in the canal, and he'll get re-energized after that.
GROSS: And when you weren't working, could you have fun with Zenit? Could you play with him? Or is that kind of against military rules?
ARMENTA: No, no, there's - we kind of have a purpose for everything we do with the dog. And so us playing, which is we call it center-line drills, which is the military version of playing fetch, and we'll do that a lot just to keep the dog conditioned. So it's hot out there, so I have to make sure he's staying active and conditioned, even when we're back on base, so that he's not getting too tired while we're out on mission.
So a lot of our downtime would be us running mock missions around the base. I'll hide some explosives, and we'll go look for it. Or I'll do, you know, center-line drills and keep him in shape. So a lot of our downtime was actually, you know, just prepping for the next mission.
GROSS: And would Zenit sleep in some kind of kennel or sleep next to you?
ARMENTA: No, he would sleep bedside.
GROSS: And was that comforting at all? I mean, it's so great to have an animal near you at night.
ARMENTA: Yeah, well, he is - he was my familiar buddy in an unfamiliar place. So it was comforting. And he brought a lot of joy to all the Marines that came by. To them he was just a dog, and it just reminded them of home. So I had a lot of Marines wanting to come up and play with him. And I kind of had to be the tough dad and be like, OK, well, he's not a pet, so, you know, don't play with him too much.
GROSS: Now you said that the Marines make it clear that you have to be emotionally detached from the dog and that the dog has to be emotionally detached from you so that if something happens to either of you, the other can continue with the deployment without getting, you know, like becoming an emotional mess.
GROSS: So what do you do to foster that feeling of detachment? I mean, people get so attached to their animals.
ARMENTA: Yeah, and every dog handler is different, just like every dog is different. For me it wasn't that difficult. I think it probably had something to do with my upbringing. I was used to not being emotionally attached to anything, and so it wasn't too difficult and especially since I had a dog prior to him, and I had to leave that dog to go to my next unit. And so that dog belonged to the previous unit, and so I had to leave him, and that's when I picked up Zenit was at my next unit.
So I had already had to leave a dog to another handler. And so it was clear that I couldn't become attached to any dog.
GROSS: So you - sort of a self-preservation.
GROSS: So would you describe what the mission was on the day you were injured?
ARMENTA: Well, a lot of that day, and my time in Afghanistan is a little blurry, probably because of the explosion and all the medication I was on, but up and to that point, we really hadn't encountered too many IEDs. It was more of just direct enemy fire, which was surprising because that area was known for having a lot of IEDs, and the unit that was just south of us were getting pounded by IEDs.
I mean, we were seeing explosions day in and day out in the distance, and we knew they were having a hard time. And a couple of our missions were to go into that unit's area and kind of help them out because they were having a hard time with the insurgency in that area.
GROSS: So do you have any idea what detonated the IED that injured you?
ARMENTA: Oh yeah, definitely. It was a pressure plate, which is activated by stepping on it and completing the charge. So there are homemade landmines that are detonated by completing a charge. You step on a piece of wood and, you know, push down, and two little metal pieces will touch, and then the explosion happens.
GROSS: And you stepped on it?
ARMENTA: Yeah, that's correct, I stepped on it.
GROSS: Was it buried deep enough that you didn't see it?
ARMENTA: Yeah, yeah, we had found prior to me stepping on the IED, we had found about four or somewhere around there, and they were all visible because they were planted at the entry points of the canal that we were in. And so we could see them once we were in. If you were stepping into the canal, you wouldn't be able to see them. They were covered up on top of them, so that if you were coming in using the likely entry point, you wouldn't see it, and you'd step on it.
Since we were in already, we could see them. The one I stepped on was completely buried. So I couldn't see it.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jose Armenta, and he's a retired Marine dog handler whose story is featured on the cover of the June issue of National Geographic magazine. Let's take a short break. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Jose Armenta. He's a retired Marine dog handler whose story is featured on the cover of the June issue of National Geographic magazine. His mission was to walk ahead of the platoon he was with and search for IEDs with the help of his dog Zenit, who was trained for explosives detection and patrol.
Armenta was injured by an IED on a mission and lost both legs above the knee. Had you allowed yourself to imagine what would happen if the worst happened, and you did step on an IED? Had you ever allowed yourself to think about that before it happened? I mean, I'm not sure you could do that kind of work if you think about it too much.
ARMENTA: Yeah, I never allowed myself to really think about it on mission. I briefly did think about the outcome prior to a mission or afterward. But while on the mission, you never really focus on that kind of thing. Your whole focus while searching for IEDs or on the mission is to just find those IEDs and to make sure you don't miss one. That's the main focus.
The only fear that I really had during a mission was if I didn't find an IED what the outcome would be, if I missed one. That was the only fear that lingered on my mind at all times while on a mission.
GROSS: Do you remember what went through your mind when you realized that you'd stepped on an IED?
ARMENTA: I don't remember my exact thoughts, but like I said, a lot of it was blurry, and it comes back when I hear it told by someone else who was there. So the NatGeo journalist asked my buddy kind of what happened after the blast, and he said something, and it kind of brought back some memories that after I was blown up, I kept saying I F-ed up, I F-ed up. And by that I meant, you know, I missed one. And so I think that was my first thought was that I screwed up.
GROSS: But Zenit, your dog, was not hurt, right?
ARMENTA: No, no, he was about 20 feet in front of me. So he was lucky.
GROSS: After you were injured, while you were lying there waiting for medical help and for a Medevac to helicopter you out of there, did Zenit stay with you?
ARMENTA: That's correct, yeah. He - what he told me, my buddy, Sergeant Maroony(ph), he's the guy who saved my life while I was over there, he told me and told the journalist that Zenit had come back and laid down next to us. And then it's protocol after a dog is injured or his handler that we're Medevaced together, where we stay together.
GROSS: So you weren't really conscious enough to be aware, or maybe you just don't have enough memory of that, of that moment to know that Zenit was there with you.
ARMENTA: No, I know I did ask about him. I asked a couple questions after I made those statements that I had F-ed up, and I asked where was Zenit, and my buddy Maroony told me hey, he's right here. And then I asked him do I still have my legs, and he was treating me for shock, so he started changing the subject and doing what he knows he had to do to save my life.
GROSS: What did he do to save your life?
ARMENTA: Oh, we're trained to right away put a tourniquet on the legs or the limbs that are missing. We get extensive first aid training for, you know, the aftermath of an IED because we know that's the main threat out there. So he right away would put a tourniquet on me, apply direct pressure to any of my wounds, hook me up with an IV and start taking my mind off of my injury so that I'm not freaking out.
GROSS: From the National Geographic article, it sounds like you remained conscious until the Medevac came, and that took about two hours because the Medevac was ferrying out somebody else who had been injured. Did you almost like will yourself to not pass out? Like were you afraid to pass out?
ARMENTA: Well, it's kind of funny how it happened. I mean maybe funny's not the right word because it wasn't comical, but it was just weird, on the feeling that I had at the time, just felt really tired, and I did make a conscious effort to not pass out. So I felt that if I did, I knew the outcome would be me dying. So I definitely ran away from the light, if, you know...
GROSS: Ran away from the light, is that what you said?
GROSS: Did you actually see like a light when you were close to death?
ARMENTA: Well, I believe I did feel something. And I'm not a religious man, but I did feel something, and I felt that I did see something that I was approaching, and so I tried to stay away from that.
GROSS: Where you Medevaced to? Where were you taken to?
ARMENTA: The first stop was Camp Leatherneck, which is the main Marine Corps base in Southern Afghanistan. And I believe I was there for about a day or two before I was taken to Germany, where they kind of did all the first surgeries and had me stabilized.
GROSS: At what point did you realize you did lose your legs?
ARMENTA: I don't remember the exact point. It just kind of happened. I remember waking up in Germany, kind of knowing that my legs were gone. Maybe I had woken up, and they told me when I was drugged up or something like that, but I just kind of, I gradually became aware that I was missing my legs.
GROSS: I've read that before you were injured, you'd said that you'd rather die than survive without one of your limbs, that you didn't want to be half a man. Is that how you felt in the early days after you realized that your legs were gone?
ARMENTA: No, surprisingly, I was pretty happy to be alive. You know, before my injury, that's usually the mindset that a lot of us have was, you know, if we're going to get blown up, we'd rather just die on the battlefield than come back missing half our body. But after I had been through the whole experience, I was happy to be alive.
GROSS: So, you know, we talked a little bit about the mission you were on when you were injured and a little bit about what you went through. Let's talk some more about your dog Zenit. Zenit was not injured. So after you started going through your recovery, Zenit was redeployed, given another handler. Was Zenit sent back into Afghanistan?
ARMENTA: After I was injured, my dog was assigned to another dog handler, and they went on and completed the deployment, the six-month deployment because I was at the halfway point, about three months, when I was injured. And so Zenit went on for another three months doing missions with another dog handler.
GROSS: In Afghanistan?
ARMENTA: That's correct.
GROSS: OK. So did you miss Zenit as you were starting to, you know, like come back into your senses and begin your recovery?
ARMENTA: Yeah, I did. It was surprising because up and to that point, I had made sure that I was emotionally detached from Zenit. I tried to keep it strictly professional since I knew it was very likely that one of us would be injured in performing our job. And so I tried not to get too emotionally attached to him.
But after the fact, after I was out of the battlefield and recovering, and I had found out that he was assigned to another handler, I was kind of angry. I didn't want him in danger anymore. I wanted him back home with me. And so that's when it kind of became evident, and that's when my emotions were evolving from a professional relationship to more of a partnership and a friendship.
GROSS: Jose Armenta will be back in the second half of the show. He's a retired Marine dog handler who's profiled in the National Geographic's June cover story "Hero Dogs." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Jose Armenta, a retired Marine dog handler. He and his dog Zenit, a German shepherd trained for explosive detection and patrol, had the mission of walking ahead of their platoon, searching for IEDs. In 2011, an IED Armenta didn't detect exploded. Both of his legs were amputated above the knees.
During his slow recovery, he wanted to be with his dog, Zenit. But Zenit had been redeployed to Afghanistan with another handler. Armenta initiated a year-long procedure trying to adopt the dog. Armenta is profiled in the National Geographic's June cover story, "Hero Dogs."
Did you feel in a way that like Zenit was capable of understanding what you'd experience in a way that other people wouldn't be?
ARMENTA: I'm not sure how much I would say he understands what happened. But he definitely knows something was different and I think he...
GROSS: I guess what I mean is he was there with you, like he...
GROSS: He was 20 feet away. He kind of experienced it with you, even though he...
ARMENTA: That's right.
GROSS: You know, thankfully wasn't injured and even though he can't talk about it and you could talk about it with him, but he's not going to understand the words that you're saying, but he was there.
ARMENTA: Yeah. He was there. He lived it with me. And I think that's why our bond is so strong now because only me and him know what we experienced and no one else will understand it.
GROSS: Did you worry that when you were finally reunited with your dog Zenit that Zenit wouldn't remember you? Because, you know, Zenit had had at least one other handler and there might have been more than that and was, you know, had been back in Afghanistan, back on missions. I mean that's a lot to go through. Did you think maybe you'd finally get Zenit back and Zenit wouldn't really know who you were?
ARMENTA: That was one of my fears. Another reason why we try to detach ourself from the dog as much as possible is for that very reason that we're not to attach so that if the house is injured or killed or the dog, the dog or the handler can go and start another team up again and operate efficiently. And so I wasn't sure whether Zenit was detached from me just like I was from him and he was going to go and create a bond with another handler and maybe, maybe forget about his old handler, but that wasn't the case.
GROSS: So would you describe the scene for us when you were reunited?
ARMENTA: Yeah. We were reunited at 29 Palms, the Marine Corps base in Southern California. And I was in the wheelchair at the time and he kind of just jumped on me with his two paws and started giving me a licking and that's when I knew hey, he remembers me.
GROSS: So what did you do after, like when you realized Zenit remembered you? Did you then like play or talk with him? Or like where does the reunion go after that?
ARMENTA: Oh, well, after exchanging a couple kisses, we jumped in my truck and started a road trip back home to San Diego and once we got there I just started trying to customize him to civilian life. And show him the retired life that he deserves.
GROSS: What do you think some of the most difficult parts were in Zenit's adjustment to civilian life?
ARMENTA: Oh, just the getting used to not being told what to do or, you know, every minute of the day he was used to taking a lot of orders and to always training, you know, always playing around, which a lot of times that's what they like. Especially German shepherds and the breeds that we use, these dogs love to be active, they love to have jobs and so for him it was kind of like, OK, now it's time to wind down. And for the first month that's what he was doing. He would just sit there and stare at me and wait for a command and gradually as time went on he relaxed and, you know, laid down and wait until we went outside and played fetch.
GROSS: So how does the civilian Zenit compare to the military Zenit in terms of his personality?
ARMENTA: Oh, it changed a lot. A lot of these dogs, they don't, they have a motion when you give them their toy, when you're praising them for a job well done, but other than that you don't see a lot of emotion out of them. They know hey, we got to play that game, at the end of the game then we have fun. But now, you know; now he chases his tail and dig holes in the yard and loves steaks. And he never - I don't think he ever knew what a steak and so, yeah, he's changed a lot.
GROSS: Do you still play with the Kong, with the toy that you used as his reward on missions in Afghanistan?
ARMENTA: Yeah. Yeah. Definitely. He never leaves the Kong behind. He's always holding it in his mouth, 24/7. So, and before, they only got the toy right after a job well done and then we took it back because it was our reward to them, so we never let them have it for long periods of time. And now he has the Kong in his leisure, so he's a happy dog.
GROSS: Was Zenit trained to attack if necessary?
ARMENTA: Yes. He was patrol certified. But he was never really a good attack dog. He didn't like attacking people. I could tell right off the bat that he was more of a lover than most working dogs. You know, my previous dog loved biting people. I had to really pull him back because he just loved to bite and he was good at it. But Zenit was the opposite. He just, he loved to sniff for explosives, play catch, but he didn't like biting people. I think that's why he transitioned so well to civilian life.
GROSS: You were engaged when you were in Afghanistan.
ARMENTA: That's correct.
GROSS: After you were injured by the IED and you lost your legs, did you fear that your fiance would leave you because you weren't who you were before?
ARMENTA: Yeah. Yeah. That's definitely, that was a big fear. And I think that's probably one of the biggest fears that a lot of us have. And we kind of come up with our own conclusion that obviously, you know, our wife or our girlfriend or fiance is going to have to move on and start another life somewhere else, but that wasn't the case. In fact, I had told Eliana, which is my wife, I told her at my bedside, if you want to leave, now's the time to do it and, you know, she told me shut up and that she was there to stay around, so I'm a lucky guy.
GROSS: You know, earlier we were talking about how before the explosion you had said like a lot of other soldiers that you would rather die on the battlefield then come home without one of your limbs, that you didn't want to be half a man. So now that you, you know, you still have a life, you're married, you have a baby, you have your dogs, you have, you're in school full-time, I mean it sounds like you're happy to be alive. Have you rethought what it means to be a man? Since you are afraid like if you lost a limb you'd be half the man? But I mean you're still a man.
ARMENTA: That's correct. Yeah. My point of views and the way I think have changed quite a bit. At the time, I was 23 and a young Marine who just wanted a lot of action and to accomplish missions and, you know, do what a Marine does. You know I grew up on kind of the bad side of town and you always saw a man as a tough guy and so naturally when I joined the military, I wanted to join the Marine Corps because that's where all the tough guys are. And so I did that and so my perception of a man was a, you know, a tough guy that could accomplish anything and to run through a brick wall. Now what it means to be a man is to be a good father and a good husband and to, you know, try to achieve our goals and be the best person you can be. So, yeah, my perception of amount has changed a lot.
GROSS: Had you been exposed to a lot of violence growing up so that the idea of being in the military and possibly being deployed in war wasn't especially frightening to you because you'd seen a lot already?
ARMENTA: That's correct. Growing up in, you know, I didn't grow up in the worst part of town, but a lot of the parts I grew up in were not the nicest places. So there were a couple of shootings in my first high school. I was only there for a semester but there was two drive-by shootings in one semester. There had been a couple shootings in front of my house and so I had been - I had seen a lot of violence growing up. My sister died in front of my house in a car accident so violence and death wasn't anything new to me.
GROSS: When you enlisted in the Marines, did you assume you'd be sent to Iraq or Afghanistan?
ARMENTA: I mean definitely. I was counting on it.
GROSS: And you wanted that?
ARMENTA: Yeah. I felt that I watched on the news a lot of young men coming back injured and missing parts and my mentality was why are these guys out there? I don't want these guys out there dying for me. I want to go out and defend myself and defend my country. So I felt like it was my duty to join and to go fight.
GROSS: Until recently I think, you know, after you recovered from your injuries you had a civilian job with the Marines. But you've left that job now you're in school full-time and you're a new father. But what are you studying?
ARMENTA: I'm studying business. So I'm doing a complete change, going from law enforcement to business, so something new.
GROSS: What's your ambition now?
ARMENTA: Well, I would like to own my own business one day, be my own boss.
GROSS: Right. Do you know what kind of business?
ARMENTA: No, I'm not exactly sure. I know I want to help people. I was maybe thinking of being a financial advisor, helping people with retirements. Nothing exciting, but I think the necessary job.
GROSS: You also have a little baby at home. How old is your baby?
ARMENTA: Little team is two and a half months old.
GROSS: Your baby I believe is named after the Marine who saved your life after the IED explosion?
ARMENTA: That's correct. Yeah. While we were thinking of baby names and being dumbfounded by it, I was, it came to me what better name to give my son, you know, my new joy in life than the man who saved my life, and that was Sgt. Maroni(ph) .
GROSS: So does Sgt, Maroni know about this?
ARMENTA: Yeah, he does. Yeah. He said it was an honor.
GROSS: Well, it's really been good to talk with you. Thank you so much. And...
ARMENTA: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Yeah. No, it's really been a pleasure.
ARMENTA: Appreciate it.
GROSS: Jose Armenta is profiled in the National Geographic's June cover story, "Hero Dogs." You'll find a link to the article on our website freshair.npr.org. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new collection of essays by the late feminist writer Ellen Willis.
This is FRESH AIR.
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