Lord’s Day Out by Brent Cheetham

MWD Lord and I served from 2013-2016 as a patrol explosives detection dog team stationed out of Fort Bliss, TX. Our military working dog team supported the 44th President of The United States with bomb detection services before deploying to Afghanistan in 2015. I was lucky enough to have been Lord’s only handler. To have had such a friend is enough to fill a man’s heart. The following account is in loving memory of the dream team <3

MWD Lord – V391
20 JAN 12 – 22 AUG 16

Each handler from the Fort Bliss kennels volunteered their Saturday off to help lug our gear and send us on our way. I said my farewell to the 513th Military Working Dog detachment before heading up the stairs toward the El Paso airport’s security screening area. My dog team flew from San Diego to El Paso for a three-week pre-deployment explosives training course. The course was held in August 2014 and featured an all-Marine cadre at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona. A crowd of travelers funneled into a screening line; most looked to be heading home from summer vacation. Having flown in uniform before, I was used to the uncomfortable gaze of onlookers. Luckily, their eyes were focused on my traveling partner. At the brass end of the four-foot leather leash stood my patrol-explosives-detection-dog-enhanced, Lord. The last letter in his postnominal, PEDD-E, meant that his training was ‘enhanced’ enough that he didn’t require a leash. I wasn’t willing to risk Lord chomping off a stranger’s finger this early in the trip, however. Despite being leashed and wearing a vest that stated in bright, bold, reflective letters, not to pet him; pleas for an exception were constantly made.

Lord’s eyes were bright orange sunburst, with a black diamond seated middle between them, on his forehead. The German Shepherd’s coat was onyx black over the spine and faded from burnt orange to pale sand toward his paws. His ears stood erect like two large radio towers, tuned to the most minute disturbances in frequency. The bomb dog’s long chiseled nose was his most valuable asset, able to detect human odor and differentiate the chemical makeup from a litany of explosive compounds. Training daily at his craft, Lord’s abilities were reliable enough to pinpoint the location of his target with over ninety-five percent accuracy.

My first bomb dog presented me with a challenge and the chance to deploy before my military contract was complete. Lord arrived at the Fort Bliss kennels in January 2014, having just turned three years old. After completing puppy boot camp at Lackland Air Force Base, he was still ‘green.’ Lord had a deep, resonating bass to his bark. He was a talker, never failing to let out a disapproving whine on hotter days or when he wanted a treat. I taught him to ‘speak’ on command, what K9 aficionados refer to as a psychological deterrent. Lord towered over other dogs and small children; his hind legs could easily be mistaken for that of a Clydesdale’s. He held one hundred pounds in a lean, working dog fashion. The muscle striations on the outside of his jaw flaunted the strength of his bite.

It took weeks of around-the-clock rapport building for Lord to let his guard down around me. I would read him books, share the twin bed in my barracks room, attempt to sing him songs, and split my meals with him. Lord grew to respond only to my voice, which was much more efficient than training him in German, as many K9 handlers practice. Part of Lord’s certification requirement was to attack with or without command; this meant I had to be on guard for stray kids who thought Lord was as friendly as their Shih Tzu back home. We passed the parade of travelers at security, taking their shoes off and awaiting inspection. Luckily, I enjoyed avoiding taking my boots off as Lord and I went through the law enforcement gate. My multi-cam carry-on was packed with water bowls, folders of veterinary records, and deployments orders. Also tucked away in my lug-about were zip-lock bags full of extra dog food, an iPad, collars and leashes, shit bags, muzzles, and a wide variety of treats and toys. Lord’s favorites were Beggin’ Strips and Kong Wubbas, plush squeaky toys with dangling octopus legs. He preferred the Wubbas so much that my training NCO allowed it as his primary payment when detecting a correct odor, bending the rules to our benefit. The standard Army working dog toy was the classic rubber Kong, which Lord would play with but never truly cared for. He would go bonkers for those damn Wubbas, which weren’t cheap. I ordered them in bulk because Lord would shred them to pieces in no time. Wubbas were his thing, and no Army regulation would change that. With our bags loaded like a traveling PetCo, we had the essentials of a dog team on the move.

The TSA agents at the law enforcement gate were only concerned with the location of Lord’s serial number, which proved he was indeed a military working dog. I laughed as one of the agents snapped on a pair of rubber gloves; there was no way he was touching my Lordy pie. I pulled my bomb dog’s left ear back to reveal the faded black ink of his tattoo number, V391. The Army veterinarians said that MWDs get their tattoos during their first dental appointment since they are already under anesthesia. I would eventually get the same branding of V391 tattooed on my chest over my heart, forever commemorating my dear K9 companion. After showing off Lord’s ‘certifiable’ ink, the TSA agent let us through to find our gate.

A quick glance at our boarding pass showed we had plenty of time. I got breakfast from a Dunkin’ kiosk and found a quiet corner near our gate to sit. I sipped my coffee and gave the rest of the hashbrowns to Lord. He ate them without breaking his line of sight from a little girl sitting with her family, holding a plush bear nearly the size of her. For such an intimidating dog, Lord really liked stuffed animals; or rather, ripping their heads off and disemboweling their cotton gizzards. I pinched his flank so he wouldn’t get any ideas of breaking free. I pulled out a folder from my bag and went over the logistics of our trip.

We were on orders to attend the MWD Team Pre-Deployment Training Course, where dog handlers meet in Yuma, Arizona, to learn from the ATF and Marine Expeditionary Force cadre. The school’s mission was to advance the dog team’s capabilities by implementing massive quantities of explosives in our upcoming training. Another critical training goal was acclimating our dogs to the deployment environment, where Lord and I were headed a week after the course’s completion. Yuma Proving Ground’s mock Afghan villages featured mud huts, loud prayer music, signs in Farsi, trees imported from Kabul, camels, donkeys, and ‘stray’ dogs. These, along with primarily training at night, served as a distraction from finding hundreds of pounds of buried explosives. The seasoned trainers would help my ‘green’ dog with an issue known as oversaturation. This was a weak point in Lord’s training, as he would become too overwhelmed with massive odors to pinpoint the exact location of heavier explosives. We flew west to ride in a van back east, catching a ride with the Pendleton Marines. They planned to pick us up at the San Diego airport’s USO building. It was about an hour away from the Yuma base. We then drove east a day before the course would begin.

Lord and I were walking back from the airport’s pet relief area when a pre-recorded voice came over the public address system, “American Airlines flight 5266 with service to San Diego is now welcoming priority passengers at gate B2.” Knowing that the boarding process would be chaotic, I told Lord to ‘foose,’ my signature command. He reacted by spinning around my body and walking between my legs. My left-handed pistol holster interfered with dogs heeling on that side, so I had used Foose out of practicality with every K9 I trained with. Lord learned all my parlor tricks with ease. His obedience was stellar; other handlers called him a push-button dog. I gave the attendant our ticket and waddled down the boarding ramp. Lord’s teeth chattered as a fellow passenger opened a bag of chips.

“Leave it,” I reminded him. He stomped on my boots in defiance as we waltzed to our seats. It was a full flight, except for the entirety of row F. It seemed reserved just for us. I helped Lord jump to the window seat and broke out my iPad, sitting middle. The cabin doors shut with a noticeable “thunk”; a few stragglers were still finding their assigned seats and struggling to store their belongings in the overhead bins. Amongst the crowd of passengers was a short elderly woman; I was nearly sure a defenseless retiree wasn’t about to sit in the aisle next to an Army attack dog. She made her way down the tube, stopping at our row. Realizing she was indeed sitting with us, I stood to help store her carry-on. She and Lord met eyes. “Is he a good boy?” she asked earnestly. “Sometimes.” Her worried look told me the joke hadn’t landed; at least she thought his name was interesting. Collectively, we sat as the flight attendants gave their safety briefing in case anyone on board had forgotten how to fasten a seatbelt. Lord stood to turn his head for a better view of the passengers. His tongue flopped in contentment, drooling all over the poor sap seated behind us. I wanted to know if Lord’s presence made the passengers feel more secure or on edge during that flight to San Diego.

I restrained Lord from pouncing on our elderly traveling partner for most of the flight. I white-knuckled his collar for two hours and listened to her drone on. “They’re faster; they can sneak around and jump higher. My little Agnes has an excellent nose; she always finds things around the house. Maybe it’s easier for the Army to train dogs because they’re simpler than cats… No offense, Lord.” The woman persisted. I politely nodded as she went on a tirade about how her cat was fit for special forces. I patted Lord on his chest, calming his restlessness. Lord would get zits frequently, and I grew to enjoy popping the puss. I bathed him earlier in the week before we left for school, hoping to prevent a breakout. He still smelled like coconut butter from his acne shampoo. A bald patch was shaved on his left leg, allowing me easier intravenous access after his last heat casualty during a ‘Bliss’tering training day back at home base.

We landed in San Diego to face the most arduous part of our flight as a K9 team, baggage claim. Disembarking from the plane, I slipped a hard plastic muzzle over Lord’s lengthy snout and fastened the metal clasp behind his ears. Although we both hated the Cujo mask, there were too many children and tourists running around to not take such precautions. Heading toward our luggage, we followed the stampede of busy travelers. A restless mob surrounded the carousel as I located our dog crate, ‘green’ A-bags filled with uniforms, gear, and a sixty-pound Vittles Vault of Lord’s dog food. I grabbed a trolley to load the necessities and to help ease my back pain. We then headed to the airport security office to pick up my weapons case. The small security room didn’t allow Lord much space to lie down, so he jumped onto the attendant’s desk as I signed multiple custody forms for my pistol, rifle, and night vision goggles. With all our gear in order, I walked my dog while pushing the trolley to the San Diego Airport’s USO to meet the Pendleton Marines.

I opened the glass door to the USO and approached the attendant. She notified me that I could keep my gear in the lobby, but Lord had to stay outside on the deck. I stored our bags, returned the trolley, and grabbed some free snacks. Noticing an empty USO, I assumed that the attendant must’ve ordered the other dog teams to the outside to the deck as well, so we went. That too was a ghost town. I grabbed a folder and water bowl out of my bag and poured a fresh Dasani for Lord. Double-checking the itinerary, I confirmed that we were on time for pickup, but it was the wrong date. I called my training NCO back at Fort Bliss once I realized that the Pendleton Marines wouldn’t be here until tomorrow; SSG Sanford had shipped my dog team out a day early. My NCO corrected the issue by activating my government travel card. Lord and I were stuck to the outside deck of the USO. Without a hotel, a way to haul our gear, or transportation, I at least had a line of credit to solve our more immediate problems.

A quick search on my phone showed that Coronado Naval base was only fifteen minutes away from our current location. I reserved a room for Lord and me at the Gateway Inn on-base. The on-base hotels are typically the cheapest, and they’d be forced to allow us both a room as we were on ‘orders’. I hailed an airport cabbie and gave him a twenty to help with our bags. After storing Lord’s disassembled crate in the trunk of the yellow cab, the two of us hopped in the back seat. I apologized for the dog hair and directed him toward the naval base. I had never been to California before, and neither had Lord. Our taxi took us on the scenic route along San Diego Bay. We passed an In-N-Out burger, a zoo, bars, beaches, and waterfront entertainment; our travel mistake was looking better with each passing moment. I rolled the back windows of the cab down; Lord and I craned our necks outside to enjoy the ‘Cali’ scenery and weather. I tucked my noggin’ back inside the cab only to notice that Lord hadn’t quite had enough of the cool, seventy-five-degree breeze. His fiery orange eyes squinted from the gleaming sun, stupefied from ‘Bliss,’ as his tongue waved like his new favorite state’s flag.

Once we arrived at the on-base Gateway Inn, I grabbed a hotel trolley and tossed our excess baggage onto it before checking in. Finally reaching our room, I fed Lord his dinner and contemplated what to do with the rest of our unplanned vacation. Gaining an hour of daylight from our travels, I decided we should take advantage of our time together here in California and take Lord to the beach for the first time. I changed from my uniform into board shorts and took off Lord’s working dog vest, which didn’t detract from his stout demeanor. Together we walked off the naval base and into the civilian world. Coronado beach was only a short walk away; it felt good to finally be free together. People didn’t seem to stare as much as usual as we strolled along the shoreline. I hoped this would be what retirement would look like for Lord and me someday if I could ever get past the bureaucracy of adopting him. We spent a good hour enjoying the sun and sand before seeing what downtown San Diego had to offer.

Walking along a busy sidewalk, we noticed one of the buildings had a bright yellow awning whose green letters read in bold, “Stoney’s Bar and Grill”. It seemed like a decent enough dive bar to hang out for a bite, so Lord and I went in. With only a few local patrons, Lord had enough space to stretch his legs. The relaxed, old-school bar featured pool tables and bamboo accents. I found a high top in a corner seat near an open pool table and told Lord to lay and stay. Before I could approach to ask for a seat, the bartender commented on how mean Lord looked and welcomed us both to Stoney’s. A waitress came over with a dog bowl full of water and took my order. “So, what’s his name?” she asked. When I told her my dog’s name, the waitress responded, “Well, that’s… different,” presenting her best faux grin. Having felt the need to explain, I said I named him that because I was very ‘spiritual’. In reality, I had no idea who the hell named these damned working dogs. I divvied a few quarters between the pool table and an outdated jukebox. Lord laid still under a neon Bud Light sign, watching as I played a few rounds of pool against myself.

The sun had set as we parted Stoney’s. Our walk back to the naval base proved worth the burden as a sign caught my eye: “Bayside Park”. We turned down a dimly lit path where the sign pointed, appreciating the park’s trees and piers. The lights emitted from a small stage revealed a live band playing to a small audience. Lord and I found a patch of grass to sit and listen to the trio play their blues setlist. After a few songs, the moonlight meant our joy ride had ended, and it was time to walk back to the naval base.

Back at our hotel room, I stopped to grab Lord’s Furminator, and we made our way to the Gateway Inn parking lot for a late-night grooming. I meticulously brushed any stray hairs away from his coat so that he would make his best impression on the school’s cadre tomorrow. Our hotel room’s king-sized bed was calling our name, so we went in for the night. I ordered our cab back to the airport for the morning as Lord made himself comfortable on the bed, ruffling the sheets into a giant, pillowy mass. I hooked my iPad up to the TV and put on Seinfeld before hopping into bed next to a snoring German Shepherd, spooning his plush octopus Wubba. The unfairness of Lord’s situation suddenly struck me. He never signed up or gave his consent to any of this. Our day in San Diego showed me how content he could be as a regular house dog. After four years of being a dog handler, I realized that these animals were more than merely equipment with their own serial numbers. I had come to truly understand how close Lord and I had become as friends in under a year as I watched him snore. Lord’s jowls fluttered from his forceful breaths. The tranquility on his face showed that he preferred the soft pillow to his cement kennel.

The thought of losing him made me want to leave my weapons case in the hotel and ship the keys back to Fort Bliss, leaving it all behind and flying home to Rhode Island together. The thought of losing him even made me want to reenlist, knowing that I would have an uphill battle at ever adopting my dog as a ‘civilian’. It made me want to fail this arbitrary explosives course on purpose so we wouldn’t deploy. It made me want to hold him and never let go. What we shared was unique, different from other dog teams, a one-of-a-kind bond that was truly unconditional. When we were initially building rapport, we were building trust, the most vital part of our dog team. I leaned over and kissed the black diamond on Lord’s forehead, which calmed my worries for the time being. I wished Lord goodnight and told him that I loved him. My head met the pillow as I watched the next episode of Seinfeld before catching another night of shut-eye next to my best friend. I wish this story had a less ‘explosive’ ending.