AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq — Although getting bitten or attacked by their partners is an occupational hazard, Marines on the al Asad airbase northwest of Baghdad say theirs is the most coveted job in the military.
After all, they're paired up with what Westerners — although not all Muslims — consider man's best friend. This sprawling base's K-9 teams, which consist of one dog and one Marine, are a mainstay in Iraq's once restive Sunni Muslim Anbar province.
More than four dozen teams are working in the province with dogs that are trained to attack and subdue detainees and track insurgents. Nowadays, the dogs are used primarily to detect explosives, either on or off a leash and as much as 500 feet from their handlers.
"Nobody had ever utilized dogs in a real combat offensive since Vietnam," said Staff Sgt. Joseph Evans, of the Provost Marshals Office at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, based at Twenty Nine Palms, Calif. "A lot of the knowledge and a lot of the know-how has slipped away through time, so we really had to reinvent the application of our jobs on the fly."
Since the beginning of the war, two handlers from the kennel have been killed in action and four dogs and seven handlers have been wounded, said Evans, 28, of Heavener, Okla., who trains dogs and handlers at the al Asad kennel.
Evans has been working with military dogs for the last eight years, and one of his primary duties is to act as a decoy.
One hot Sunday afternoon recently, he demonstrated how he slips on protective arm gear and allows a male Belgian Malinois named Arzan to go to town. Evans winced when the dog bit his arm, but he allowed the demonstration to continue. The average Malinois has a top speed of 45 mph, 42 teeth and can bite with as much as 1,200 pounds per square inch of force.
When Evans removed the cushioned sleeves, Arzan's teeth marks were visible on his arm, along with some broken skin and blood. Evans shrugged. Acting as a decoy, he's been bitten more than 50 times.
In addition to the Belgian Malinois, there are German Shepherds and Labrador Retrievers at the al Asad kennel.
The Department of Defense buys them from breeders in Germany, Holland, the Czech Republic and elsewhere in Europe when they're around 18 months old. They cost $3,000 to $7,000 each.
New recruits are immediately flown to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Tex., where handlers and dogs train together for three months before they're deployed abroad.
"That is their sponge period," Evans said. "When they're really inside their learning phase."
German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois are used primarily as attack dogs. Labrador Retrievers have several inches of olfactory membranes in their noses, and their highly developed sense of smell helps them detect explosives. A human's olfactory membrane, in comparison, is the size of a postage stamp.
"The one thing that keeps us in business is that these dogs don't know that we can't do what they do," Evans said. "If they ever figure out the truth of the game, they'll never work for us again."
In a demonstration, Ireland, a three-year-old Labrador Retriever, used her highly evolved nose to detect real bombs. She started sniffing the ground immediately, letting her nose lead her. She came to a spot and sat on her haunches. There was no bomb there — but three days ago, there was.
"She picked up on the three-day-old residual," Evans marveled.
Ireland continued her search and found the bombs in seconds. She deferred to her handler, who gave her a ball as a sign of mission accomplished.
German Shepherds are excellent problem-solving dogs, but they're slower and more methodical than Belgian Malinois, which are "highly driven" and hardier, Evans said. A German Shepherd's life span is up to nine years, while a Belgian Malinois can live as long as 11 years.
The dogs have the same rights as Marines do, although wounded humans always take priority over wounded dogs, Evans said. The dogs receive premium medical care and eat Science Diet Active, which the military considers the most nutritious food for its dogs.
Some Iraqis, however, resent the high priority the military gives its dogs.
"Iraqi citizens have lost all their rights, but dogs have rights?" said Wafa Dawood, who's searched whenever she enters Baghdad's Green Zone, the fortified space where U.S. and Iraqi officials live and work.
Nasreen Rahman said that having dogs search her is humiliating. "It's like I'm a terrorist or I've done something wrong," she said.
She, too, found irony in the fact that the military's dogs have more rights than Iraqi citizens.
"This is our country, this is our land, and we are the people of this land," she said. "But the dogs are treated better than us."
Some Iraqis' reaction to the military dogs may be heightened by the fact that many Arabs and Muslims consider dogs "kelb" — scavengers — that are unclean. (One exception is the Saluki, a desert hunting dog favored by Arabs for centuries.)
Nevertheless, Arzan and his fellow four-legged Marines are in Iraq to stay, at least as long as American troops do.
"Our dog is our partner, our dog is our back-up man," Evans said.
The dogs are trained to attack on or off leash and with or without a command at anything they perceive to be a threat to themselves or their handlers. They're trained using controlled aggression techniques, with their handlers using three tones of voice to control them.
The first is a command voice, which is very crisp and clear. The second is a correction voice, which lets the dog know what it's doing wrong. The third is the praise voice. It's high-pitched and "sounds like Bobby, from 'Bobby's World'," said Evans. "That's the hardest (voice) to teach a young Marine to do."
Handlers also utilize hand signals and clicks and whistles to be more discreet if enemy is near, Evans said.
The selection process for handlers is rigorous, and most of them, like Lance Corp. Wesley Gerwin, 21, of Bowling Green, Ohio, come from military police backgrounds. He's been working at the al Asad kennel for nearly two years.
"It's an awesome partnership you have with your dog," said Gerwin, who's partnered with a Belgian Malinois. "And you get paid to play with your dog all day. Who signs up for the Marine Corps and gets a job like this?"