TREK NAWA, Afghanistan – Dharma, a 4-year-old black Labrador retriever, follows Lance Cpl. Jeffery Rodriguez, a dog handler with Weapons Company, 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, April 24, 2012.
TREK NAWA, Afghanistan (May 2, 2012) — Many children beg their parents for a dog. The floppy ears and wagging tail seem to attract children to man’s best friend. But many parents know that caring for a dog means a lot of responsibility, training and effort.
Dog handlers in the Marine Corps not only shoulder that same responsibility — they volunteer for it on top of the responsibilities of being deployed to Afghanistan.
For Marine Corps Cpl. Jeffery Rodriguez, a dog handler with Weapons Company, 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, those responsibilities are more like a privilege.
Rodriguez said he loves being a dog handler. He knows he’s helping his squad, and the added responsibilities far outweigh the added attention of caring for a dog.
What sets Rodriguez apart from other dog handlers is the personal effort he puts into Dharma, a 4-year-old Labrador retriever.
“He’s the best dog handler I’ve ever seen,” said Marine Corps Sgt. Edward Welsh, Rodriguez’s squad leader. “He’s constantly taking care of the dog and working to make himself and Dharma better.”
Rodriguez, a native of Fayetteville, Ga., knows that a dog handler’s job is more than just patrolling with and feeding the dog. The most important job is ensuring the dog is well prepared for the deployment ahead.
Shortly after he arrived in Afghanistan he built Dharma a new kennel. The kennel, made from discarded pieces of Hesko wall, has a door and a crate for Dharma to sleep in. He used excess cargo netting to cover half of the kennel to shield Dharma from the harsh wind and heat of Afghanistan. Keeping the dogs in shape is vital in an area where temperatures will reach more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
“If a dog gets out of breath in 20 to 30 minutes, they actually become a hindrance to the unit,” explained Marine Corps 1st Lt. Joseph Hoeksema, Rodriguez’s platoon commander. “Dharma is in shape, and [Rodriguez] works her out two to three times a day.”
The bond between a dog handler and his dog is based on trust. If a dog doesn’t trust the handler, it won’t obey commands.
“He tells her to sit there and stay there, [and] she does it,” said Hoeksema, a native of Davenport, Iowa. “It doesn’t matter if we are getting shot at – she’s obeying [Rodriguez].”
Dharma helps Rodriguez to find improvised explosive devices and weapons caches. “I use Dharma to search compounds, or to verify potentially dangerous objects,” Rodriguez said. “She’s like my little guardian angel running around.”
The Marines patrol with Dharma daily, clearing compounds and routes. “Just trusting [Dharma] helps the Marines,” Hoeksema said. “When she goes into a compound and doesn’t find an IED, the Marines are able to walk in confident that there aren’t any IEDs.”
Dharma confirmed two IEDs and some hidden-away weapons while deployed; but beyond her keen nose, she’s made more of an impact on the Marines she protects. Dharma also helps with morale of Marines who are away from their families for several months.
After patrolling, the Marines regularly pet and play with Dharma. They also laugh as she interacts with the local animals; goats and turkeys make an interesting find for a curious dog. The sound of wings flapping and a loud gobble lets the squad know Dharma is up to some good-natured mischief. Rodriguez lets it go for a little bit before calling Dharma back.
“It has been a great experience being a dog handler,” he said. “It’s a great job to have with a lot of responsibility.”
In a couple of weeks, Rodriguez and Dharma will return home from their deployment to Afghanistan. This is Dharma’s first deployment, and it could be Rodriguez’s last. They’ll return on the same flight, but then will be separated. Dharma will be assigned a new dog handler, and Rodriguez will return to his squad.
Though the goodbye will be hard, Rodriguez said, he has loved every minute of being a dog handler. The bond he built with Dharma and the experience was well worth the extra responsibility, he added.