How One Marine Saved Dozens of Dogs and Troops

Marine Capt. Brandon Bowe (left) is known for being there for handlers and everyone he works with.

Doesn’t the name “Captain Brandon Bowe” sound like some kind of American superhero? In a way, he really is. A recent feat this Marine accomplished will have far-reaching effects that could end up saving the lives of dozens of dogs, handlers, and anyone involved in today’s military missions.

If you read my book Soldier Dogs, you’ll know of the vastly important advanced dog-team training offered at Yuma Proving Ground, in an arid southwest corner of Arizona. More than 200 dog teams go through the Inter-Service Advanced Skills K-9 (IASK) course every year before they deploy.

And across the board, they credit the course with helping them, their canines, and the people who follow them come back home alive. Ask any handler who’s been through it: “The best training out there.” “It’ll save your life, and maybe a lot of other lives.” “You shouldn’t deploy with a dog if you haven’t gone to Yuma.”

But this lifesaving 19-day course was in grave danger of being shut down because of the cutbacks that are clobbering every part of the military. It costs less than $1 million to run IASK annually. To compare it monetarily, that’s a total of two death benefits for families of handlers or others who might not make it back home alive. In other words, it’s nothing. And of course, you can’t really put a price on a life anyway.

Gunny Knight trains Patrick, one of his favorite dogs

I devote a section of Soldier Dogs to the Yuma course, and to Gunnery Sergeant Kristopher Knight, the extremely colorful Marine who runs it. Capt. Bowe, who oversees the school, reveres him, says he’s the best, smartest trainer there is. Everyone Gunny Knight has helped train seems to agree. 

“You lose the course, you lose Knight, you lose lives,” one handler told me at the Military Working Dog Seminars at Lackland Air Force Base last month.

It was looking quite grim for the course when my book came out earlier this spring. But then came a small ray of hope. Capt. Bowe was asked to present the case for IASK. He would have to go to the Pentagon in June and speak to 30 decisionmakers who would vote in front of him and decide on the spot the fate of the course.

Gunny Knight and Capt. Bowe at last month's military working dog seminars at Lackland Air Force Base

Capt. Bowe may not be out there directly saving lives every day. He’s not a dog handler. These days he’s mostly stateside. But his actions, his presentation, his argument would be the difference between life and death for the course itself and everyone who would suffer if it were to lose funding

Hmm, not much pressure there.

Last week was show time. I followed him on Facebook, and via messages he sent from Washington, D.C.

I’m about to leave the hotel to give my brief on the dog school my unit runs at Yuma, Arizona. This school teaches handlers and dogs to find IEDs before they explode. But is about to be closed because of budget cuts. If I am successful, we will receive funding for 2 more years……..I hope I can pull this off!!!!!!

Me too, Brandon, and a lot of other people do, too. Later that day:

So there I was, giving the biggest brief of my life to a room of 30 people and high powered decision makers and the highest ranking officer gets up and walks out of the room 30 seconds into my brief. Talk about throwing me off my game……I had no idea what to do… I say to the room, “Umm, not sure what to do here…….does this mean I failed.” The entire room breaks out in laughter……the senior officer comes back in 2 minutes later, I re-gain traction and push on……at the end of the brief he awarded us our funding request and says, “I’m gonna leave again, don’t get scared, you got my vote.”……….My question is, how the hell did he know what I said when he left the first time? I guess when you are that high of a rank, you are not only the smartest person in the room……but the smartest person out of the room as well!!!!!!

OK, just a little nerve-wracking! But hugely great news! The course would be funded. It’s going to stay alive at least through fiscal year 2014, and very likely, beyond. Later that day he sent out a message with the details.

The US Marine Corps is going to partner with the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) for 2 years in order to ensure adequate funding for the IASK Course at Yuma Proving Grounds, Arizona. JIEDDO has a mandate from Congress to support any valid/proven initiative that helps save the lives of service members from the effects of IEDs. The partnership between the USMC and JIEDDO is very strong and was enhanced when I attended the Joint Military Working Dog Conference in San Antonio, TX this year. Basically, JIEDDO knows of the capabilities of well- trained Military Working Dogs and also heard that the premier training course the USMC has at Yuma was in jeopardy of being closed due to lack of funding. In the words of JIEDDO, “We’re from JIEDDO and we’re here to help.”

It gets better. With the support of JIEDDO, this allows for the USMC Training Command in Quantico, VA flexibility to plan a budget two years away. Once they get the word from Headquarters Marine Corps at the Pentagon that the IASK Course needs to be an enduring requirement, they are going to ensure that the IASK Course makes the official FY15 budget. At present, it is the #1 initiative for FY15.

Dogs and handlers will continue going through the lifesaving IASK course, thanks to Capt. Bowe and some forward-thinking decision makers. (Photo by Gunny Knight)

I am so proud of Capt. Bowe for what he accomplished, and of Gunny Knight for making the course what it is. I’m also thrilled that the 30 people at that meeting saw the wisdom in keeping this course alive. Mostly, I am relieved. Relieved that families will be seeing their loved ones come home alive because of this course. Too many lives have been lost in this war already. To take away one proven life-saving entity that barely cost anything would have been unfathomable, short-sighted, and just really stupid.

I’d heard that some high-up Pentagon people and other military decisionmakers had read Soldier Dogs, and I’d hoped that maybe some of them were in the room with Capt. Bowe that day. Just a couple of days ago, Capt. Bowe wrote me this:

I know that a few people at JIEDDO have read your book because I saw it on their desks/bookshelves when I was there! I smiled to myself and wondered if they understood that the funds I was lobbying for were for the course in that book or they already knew because they read the book….haha!

Yes haha is right! If Soldier Dogs had even a small part in helping this go through, I am thrilled. Actually, I’m thrilled no matter what. It’s exactly the kind of awareness I was hoping would get out there, no matter how it got out there.

I love the final post Capt. Bowe wrote on his Facebook page once he got home.

Round trip air fare to DC: $449
DC hotel for 4 days: $965
Being awarded millions of dollars to keep training dogs to save lives of our fellow service members: millions of dollars and an amazing sense of honor and duty.
Coming home to a beautiful german shepherd that showers you with love and kisses: priceless!

(You can read much more about the IASK course in my book Soldier Dogs: The Untold Story of America’s Canine Heroes)


4 Responses to How One Marine Saved Dozens of Dogs and Troops
  1. Beth
    June 15, 2012 | 6:19 pm

    I had the pleasure of knowing Captain Bowe while he was growing up! He has come a very long way from the little town of Keeseville, NY. I’m very proud of how far he has come, and very proud of his accomplishments! Can’t wait to be kept informed of his future accomplishments!

  2. Amy Milton
    June 15, 2012 | 8:48 pm

    This is FANTASTIC news and a great, great story about Capt. Bowe going to bat for the course and succeeding!!! Everything about IASK is priceless–from Gunny Knight, to instructors like Porras & Hardesty and the invaluable training it offers and the countless lives it saves. Couldn’t be more happy to read this good news! And thanks to Soldier Dogs & Mrs. Goodavage for helping make this happen!

  3. nate barber
    June 16, 2012 | 5:10 am

    Wow brandon i am so proud of u it is so awesome what u did to keep the program funded that will help save many lives of men n women in the service it really is a great thing u did thank you

  4. Phillip Smith
    June 16, 2012 | 5:11 am

    I’m so proud of you Brandon. Its nice to see a small town boy making a Hugh slash in the world!

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