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K-9 partners operate on vigilance, trust

OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM -- Senior Airman Donnie Wells, 363rd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron, watches as Kastor, a Belgian Malinois military working dog, sniffs for any hazardous materials or explosives among cable rolls aboard a flatbed trailer coming on-base at a forward location.  Both Wells and Kastor deployed together from the 99th Security Forces Squadron, Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Darrell Lewis)

OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM -- Senior Airman Donnie Wells, 363rd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron, watches as Kastor, a Belgian Malinois military working dog, sniffs for any hazardous materials or explosives among cable rolls aboard a flatbed trailer coming on-base at a forward location. Both Wells and Kastor deployed together from the 99th Security Forces Squadron, Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Darrell Lewis)

OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM (AFPN) -- At base gates, military working dogs and handlers are doing their part in the war with Iraq while guarding against the threat of terrorism.

These threats mean there are more reasons than ever to suspect that America's enemies will target its most valuable resources with explosives or hazardous materials. Air Force K-9 teams are on guard to detect such attempts.

"We ensure everything that comes on the installation is safe and doesn't jeopardize our people and our mission here," said Tech. Sgt. Chris Goll, the kennelmaster at a forward location. Goll is deployed from the 35th Security Forces Squadron at Misawa Air Base, Japan.

Dogs and handlers deploy together, usually for 135 to 140 days. This predictable process was disrupted by the build-up and military action to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein's regime. All the while, memories of terrorist strikes against America on Sept. 11, 2001, remain.

"The whole culture now after 9-11 in force protection is all about looking for stuff coming on the base," Goll said. Guarding against this danger has become a constant job. "We're the first ... line of defense. It's very important that our guys are vigilant and making sure that these dogs are working hard because sometimes they get tired. It's up to our handlers to keep them going.

"A good handler -- and all of our handlers are good -- can motivate a dog to work past (its) threshold. There are so many ways to hide things in vehicles; a trained eye can only find so much. That's the biggest thing (the dogs) provide."

The two primary breeds of working dogs used in the Air Force are German shepherds and Belgian malinois which are similar in appearance, Goll said. Handlers have to take precautions to keep the dogs working at peak performance in temperatures that can reach 120 degrees. The dogs work inside climate-controlled search areas whenever possible, Goll said. Patrols, however, may take them out in the heat of the day.

"If it gets too hot we have cool vests that go on the dog," Goll said. Other (preventative) measures include swapping out a dog's work schedule from days to nights. "This will shorten our week so they get more time to rest. But there's some days you just have to (work) through it."

The importance of the K-9's mission was not always apparent to those outside the law-enforcement community before 9-11, Goll said. "They knew we were there if they needed us. Now you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone -- the commanders, the senior enlisted leadership -- who aren't focused on the dog's mission."

Military working-dog handlers are a special breed themselves, Goll said. "It is important that you like animals, because you're with these dogs a lot. It's a friendship that grows out of trust for each other. The dog has to come to trust you as well as you trust the dog. Once that happens you've got a real good team."

Staff Sgt Sloan Kalina graduated from the Department of Defense military working-dog school at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, in August after nine years in security forces investigations. Deployed from Kirtland AFB, N.M., he is teamed with Torro, a Belgian malinois.

"It's a great responsibility protecting all these people and all these assets," Kalina said. "Planes don't fly if these people aren't safe."

Kalina said Torro has alerted twice on suspicious scents. The first was on his third day on the job. Kalina said his training told him what to do next.

"You just pull (the dog) out of there, get everybody out of the location and let (the explosive ordnance disposal airmen) come and do their job."

Although nothing was found on either alert, Kalina said he would "rather not have something there than let something through that was."

The staff sergeant said he trusts the dog with his own life every day that he sends him in after potentially deadly materials. "I've got all the faith in the world in him. He'll find it if it's there."

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