MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho --
The night was bitter cold on the barren landscape as the platoon stealthily made its way across a dusty field. All but one of the Soldiers gazed hard through their Night Optical Devices, scanning the backdrop for insurgent presence.
The final Soldier didn't needs NODs to see, his nose alone could detect Taliban from across a field. That Soldier was Petty Officer 1st Class Valdo, a Navy Military Working Dog attached to the 7th Squadron, 10th Cavalry Regiment; and later that night he paid his service forward in blood, vomit and feces, when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded mere feet from him, riddling him with shrapnel.
Valdo and his handler, Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan Lee, did their jobs well during that mission, known as OPERATION RED SAND, and detected booby traps in Kobali and Kamusari Villages. They saved the lives of 11 American servicemen, April 4, 2011.
After several patrols and key leader engagements, the platoon was ambushed in a field outside Kamusari. The team seemed doomed as a six- to seven-times larger force descended on them, barraging them with heavy machine gun and RPG fire.
They set up defenses in dilapidated ruins.
The moderate defenses the ruins enabled were quickly destroyed as back-to-back RPGs easily eroded the mud walls. Then an RPG landed straight in the middle of Valdo and four others, exploding with deafening might.
While Valdo howled in excruciating pain, Army Sgt. Jeff Sheppard screamed, "Medic ... medic ... medic! Damn it, we need a medic! West, we need you down here!"
Valdo had a shrapnel hole rupturing his colon, multiple other shrapnel wounds to his hind leg and tail, and Lee took a piece of shrapnel to his right shoulder. Additionally, Sheppard, Army Pfc. Ben Bradley and Air Force Tech. Sgt. Kevin Wallace were all peppered with the burning shards of metal.
It goes without saying, their service had a price.
"That was a handler's worst nightmare. When that RPG came in and exploded next to us, all I could think about was how to get Valdo off that field. His screams were jolting and I knew I had to get him to safety, and felt helpless because there was nothing I could do with the amount of incoming fire," said Lee. "He's a tough dog and made it, though. As much as the platoon owes their lives to Valdo, he owes his life to Spec. (Kellen) West and the other men who carried him off that field and got us on the medevac helicopter to safety."
With five of the 11 men wounded, they moved the K9 to safety while continuing to fight-off an overwhelming number of insurgents without resupply or reinforcements, Valdo and the team were truly lucky to be alive.
Valdo is only one bomb-detection dog from a vast network of military K9s, who all train at the Department of Defense's Military Working Dog program, 341st Training Squadron at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.
All military branches rely on MWDs, and the K9s serve vital roles in Air Force Security Forces, Army and Marine Corps Military Police, Navy Master at Arms, Coast Guard Port Security, and other various military inspection agencies and bomb detection or disposal units. In essence, military law enforcement deeply relies on the service of their four-legged warriors.
Due to the injuries suffered at RED SAND, it took five different surgeries for Valdo to recover. He served another year in the Navy and is now retired, and wears a Purple Heart Medal on his collar. He lives with Lee in New Jersey, and every April 4 the two of them spend the day together, thankful for surviving the brutal RED SAND ambush.
Far from New Jersey in the Southwestern Idaho desert lives another K9 named Troll. He also recently retired from military service and now lives with his handler, Air Force Staff Sgt. Robert Wilson, 366th Security Forces Squadron.
Troll, 366th Security Forces Squadron
Military Working Dog (retired)
According to Wilson, Troll saved his life several times. Wilson recalled one mission where, after an ambush, Troll let his team and a group of Afghan National Army Soldiers through two miles of improvised explosive device-ridden poppy fields before finding a stronger location, where the team could defend themselves.
It wasn't before long the team was on the move again, as intelligence suggested the team had bed-down right down the road from two known high-value targets. It was time to move and take down those targets.
"As we approached the building, we immediately began taking fire from the enemy," said Wilson. "We returned fire and continued to raid the building. Once inside, Troll responded to an IED which we quickly secured along with everything else."
During this search, Troll found a hidden compartment with a weapons cache containing six AK-47 assault rifles, nine pressure plates and 20 pounds of homemade explosives.
"After the explosive ordnance disposal guys showed up we went outside to conduct an exterior search with a fellow coalition member," said Wilson. "All of a sudden he was struck in the chest by a bullet from an enemy sniper. I immediately regained control of Troll and pulled the guy to a safe spot clear of the sniper. Another Soldier came and helped me get him inside so the medics could begin treatment."
With injured personnel needing immediate medical evacuation, Wilson and Troll were then responsible for clearing a landing zone for the helicopter.
Like everything else asked of them, they cleared the landing zone while engaging insurgents.
Troll and Valdo are merely two examples of the many MWDs serving today. Their time as service dogs has ended; their status as heroes will never end.
The legendary status of K9s like Valdo and Troll pale in comparison to the might they bring to the fight. Though limited in their own MWD program, Afghan allies acknowledge the power a military K9 wields.
"When we go on patrol with American forces, we normally hope for two things: they will have air support overhead and that they will have a military dog along on the mission," said ANA Platoon Sgt. Ghulam Hazrat Mohammadi, 207th ANA Corps, through an interpreter. "Americans like to call their dogs 'man's best friend,' and probably most Afghans don't realize the import role a dog can play not only in combat, but in morale on a camp. Nothing saves more lives than a bomb-detection dog, except for Air Forces in the sky."