FORWARD OPERATING BASE HASSANABAD, AFGHANISTAN — He's the most happy-go-lucky Marine in Golf Company, the shortest and the most likely to eat dead mice.
Cena, an easygoing two-and-a-half-year-old black Labrador retriever, is the unit's IDD: IED Detection Dog. He's trained to sniff out the homemade bombs — the military calls them improvised explosive devices — that insurgents have planted all over the roads, fields and paths where the Marines patrol on foot.
Patrols sometimes look like one big frolic for Cena, who likes his job. It is, after all, not much different from being walked. He lopes around, sniffing paths and piles of hay and corn shucks, wagging his tail and usually — but not always — obeying the command of his boyish handler, Lance Cpl. Jeffrey De Young, 19, of Holland, Mich.
De Young got five weeks of training before Cena and he deployed from Camp Lejeune, N.C., a few weeks ago. Cena had been in training since he was 7 weeks old.
On patrols, which can last two or three days, De Young carries not only his own food and water but also enough for Cena, as well as a small kit of veterinary supplies in case the valuable dog get sick or hurt.
Cena's role is to save lives by finding bombs — he's found one big one buried in a road and another hidden, ready for burying — but he's also a morale booster. Whenever De Young lets him loose in camp, the dog ambles around looking for someone to scratch him behind his ears.
Even Cena needs his own morale boost. On patrols, he sometimes gets bored and loses interest in bomb hunting, as he did recently while he was waiting for Marines who were searching an abandoned compound for a weapons cache. De Young reached into a pouch on his waist and pulled out a hard rubber ball on a short rope and threw it across the courtyard. The dog chased it down. After two or three tosses, he was frolicsome again and ready to go back to work
The job is a serious one, and the Marines, who are sometimes prone to dark humor, have nicknamed the solidly built Cena "Pressure Plate," after a type of detonator that's used on weight-triggered bombs. They figure he's just heavy enough to set one off.
De Young said he hoped that didn't happen.
"The way I have to look at it is, if he's killed that might save five Marines, and that's a good thing," De Young said. "If something happened to him, though, it would be like losing a brother.
"It would almost be like losing another Marine. And, really, he is a Marine."
(Price reports for The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy's national security coverage at Nukes & Spooks.