It’s 7 a.m., just north of the town of Safar, Afghanistan, and Fenji M675 is already panting. Her thick, black German shepherd coat glistens in the hot August sun. Fenji is out in front of ten marines, leashed to a D-ring that’s attached to the body armor of her handler, Corporal Max Donahue. He’s six feet behind her and holds his rifle ready.
Fenji leads the marines down the flat dirt road, past the trees and lush vegetation in this oasis amid the deserts of southern Afghanistan. She ignores the usual temptations; a pile of dung, a wrapper from a candy bar. Her mission doesn’t include these perks. Her nose is what may keep them all alive today, and she can’t distract it with the trivial. Coalition forces have been sweeping Safar of insurgents and their bombs, allowing the Safar Bazaar marketplace to reopen and locals to start living normally again. The Taliban had to go somewhere else. So they headed north. And they planted improvised explosive devices (IEDs) like seedlings, among the poppy fields and grape fields and off to the sides of roads, under thick weeds.
Around here, any step you take could be your last.
And that’s why Fenji is in the lead, walking point. IEDs are the top killer in Afghanistan—even with the highest technology, the best mine-sweeping devices, the most sophisticated bomb-jamming equipment, and the study of “pattern of life” activities being observed from remote piloted aircraft. But there is one response that the Taliban has no answer for: the soldier dog, with his most basic sense—smell—and his deepest desire—some praise, and a toy to chew.
“Seek!” Donahue tells Fenji, and they continue down the road, leading the men from the 3/1 (3rd Battalion 1st Marines). She walks with a bounce to her step, tail up and bobbing gently as she half trots down the road. Every so often she stops and sniffs a spot of interest and, when she doesn’t find what she’s seeking, moves on. She almost looks like a dog out on a morning stroll in a park. Donahue, in full combat gear—some eighty pounds of it, including water for his dog—keeps up with her.
Fenji stops at a spot just a foot off the side of the road. She’s found something of great interest. Without taking her eyes off the spot, she sniffs around it swiftly and her tail starts to wag. Suddenly she goes from standing up to lying down, staring the entire time at the spot. The men have stopped walking and are watching her. Her wagging tail kicks up some dust. Everything is silent now. No more sniffing, no crunching of boots.
Suddenly a hushed, enthusiastic voice cuts through the dead quiet. “Fenjiii! That’s my girl!” In training exercises, Donahue is a lot more effusive, but out of the respect for the bomb, he makes his initial praise short and quick, calls her back, and they “un-ass” from the area. It could be the kind of IED someone sets off from a distance, not the type that goes off when you step on it. One of the marines marks it with a chartreuse glow stick, and they move on.
Within the next hour, Fenji alerts to three more roadside bombs. Donahue lavishes her with quiet praise every time. Twice after her finds, shortly after they get away from the bombs, he tosses a black Kong toy to his dog and she easily catches it. She stands there chewing it, reveling in the sound of Donahue’s praise and the feel of the hard rubber between her teeth and the gloved hand of her best pal stroking her head. Life doesn’t get much better than this for a military working dog. These are the moments they live for, when all the years of training, all the hard work, come together.
“I’m proud of you!” Donahue tells her, and he means it, and she wags hard. She knows she’s done well. She’s been with him for seven months now, and she has a great fondness for Donahue, her first handler, and he dotes on “my sweet girl.” She liked him from the moment they met at Camp Pendleton back in February. Nearly everyone who meets Donahue reacts the same way. There’s something about his big personality, his love of life, his dry humor, the way he looks after you. Fenji fell right in with him, and he immediately took to her. She was young, bright, eager to learn from him, and he swears she has a sense of humor. He once said that she gets his jokes before his friends do. That’s probably because she tends to wag in his presence regardless of jokes. She’s just happy to be near him. She’s three years old, he’s twenty-three, and together they’re a formidable bomb-finding force.
Their bond might contribute to their success on missions. She sleeps at the foot of Donahue’s cot every night out here; she joins him for card games with the other marines; she eats next to him at the patrol base where they’ve been stationed during this mission. He lets her have some of his food “because my girl deserves it.”
The explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) technicians usually accompany the squad but had been called to another spot this morning. They’re on their way back to investigate the IEDs and defuse them. Donahue and the other marines go into action to protect the EOD techs in case of an ambush. They take positions to secure the area.
Donahue finds a great spot for his sector of fire, at a Y in the road. It’s wide open here, and he can see a few hundred meters around him. He fills Fenji’s portable bowl with water from his CamelBak. As she laps it up, he lies belly down, propped up on his elbows, and positions his rifle. He’s facing away from the field where some of the other marines are. He’s got a tiny village about two hundred meters away in his sights. If there’s trouble, that’s where it could start. A quenched Fenji lies down beside him a few feet away, and they wait.
The EOD techs arrive and get to work, carefully digging up the first IED, about one hundred meters from Donahue. One wrong move and they’re done for, and the Taliban adds another tally mark to its scorecard. One of the techs extracts the bomb from its hiding place and bends over it to take a look. Down the road, Donahue adjusts himself slightly to get more comfortable.
Three klicks south, in Safar, Corporal Andrei Idriceanu hears a terrible explosion as he and his dog sweep a building for explosives. “That could not be good,” he thinks, but he tries not to think about it too much.