Air Force Warriors: Military working dog team clicking; soon to wrap up successful deployment

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol
  • U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center Public Affairs
This is the third in a series of three stories following a military working dog team from training in the U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center's Phoenix Warrior Training Course through a deployment.)

Their adventures in Afghanistan will soon be over, but their final success will be defined in how well they have bonded as a team and a weapons system -- a human and canine spear. 

"The deployment has been good," said Staff Sgt. Christopher Dion about his six-month tour for Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom with his military working dog. Dena is an explosives detection canine and has helped Afghan and American special forces units return to their deployment bases casualty-free for more than 25 combat missions. 

"I have many fond memories of all who helped prepare me for this experience," Sergeant Dion said. "I've learned many things and have a new understanding and respect for the great people of Afghanistan. This has truly been the best deployment I have ever been on." 

After half a year and thousands of miles away from their home on MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., Sergeant Dion remains positive. 

He and Dena have endured numerous combat missions, high-level explosive detection sweeps, and the ever-present possibility of danger just around the bend. For some, that might be a bad deployment. 

"It has been about the opportunities and the reasons we are here -- to save lives and help the Afghans build on their freedom," said Sergeant Dion who arrived in country with Dena in early May. "We knew about the dangers coming in." 

Those "opportunities" have included training Afghan "Kandak" commandos (their version of special forces) in combat tactics, K-9 employment and other military skills.
"I have also worked with regular Afghan army soldiers doing random vehicle searches at their main gate and setting up and coordinating K-9 demos for them," Sergeant Dion said. "I have trained with U.S. special forces on employment of 60-, 80-, and 120-millimeter mortars, sniper weapon systems, small arms, heavy weapons and foreign weapon systems and tactics. Ever since I left Fort Dix, the training has never stopped, but is required to keep up with the latest tactics, techniques and procedures. It's because of the training that we are seeing success." 

When referring to Fort Dix, Sergeant Dion is talking about his participation in the Air Force Phoenix Warrior Training Course in February taught by the U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center's 421st Combat Training Squadron. 

In the two-week course, he and Dena went through live-fire, explosives detection and numerous other types of training regimen to be deployment ready. He followed that with continuous training with fellow MWD handlers at MacDill which he now says really aided in their ability to "hit the ground running." 

"I believe the trainers in Phoenix Warrior and the Airmen at the MacDill kennels have shown through the training they provided and in their availability to me throughout this deployment, they truly care for their craft and for those who perform it," Sergeant Dion said. "They all sought out ways to create and conduct training and scenarios that were as close to reality as possible. They've accepted suggestions and lessons of experience offered by their students as well." 

Sergeant Dion added, looking back, the Phoenix Warrior and MacDill instructors passed on a vast amount of "pride in their work." 

"For all those whom Dena and I trained with, it was more than just training," Sergeant Dion said. "They looked at being a handler and a MWD team a genuine craft. The pride they gave to their students like me has been useful in dealing with a group of military men and women who likewise take great pride in their title and abilities -- namely Army special forces." 

Although the barren, rocky terrain of the Afghan mountains is far from the pine barren forest of the Fort Dix ranges, the training received in those woods has been invaluable, Sergeant Dion said. The live fire training in Phoenix Warrior accurately prepared him and Dena for the sounds of combat in the Afghan mountains. The preparations he received by Phoenix Warrior and MacDill trainers still reverberates in his mind every day.
"It's all come together to make for a successful deployment," Sergeant Dion said. "I'm most proud of Dena. She has learned so much and has been a superstar. Although not the most aggressive dog in the Air Force, she has a nose that can't be beat." 

In their deployed location, they are approximately 7,500 feet above sea level and that has been just one more factor to deal with but Sergeant Dion said Dena has been up to the task because of daily training. "Many places we go for missions are higher than that, so the air makes cardio a little more challenging," he said. 

Every day, he said he and Dena get out and walk or run between three and six miles. "We also practice a lot of centerline drills which has her basically doing sprints chasing a ball," Sergeant Dion said. "In addition, we also participate and assist in training the commandos. All of this maintains and improves our bond as well as maintaining familiarity with the sounds and motions of combat." 

And they have seen combat. According to Bronze Star citations submitted by their deployed unit for both Sergeant Dion and Dena, there is proof of frontline action. 

An excerpt from Sergeant Dion's citation says, "During Operation Commando Strike in the vicinity of Sheykhan, Logar province, upon entering the objective Sergeant Dion with Dena began conducting a search for explosives and weapon caches. Sergeant Dion continued to conduct searches and move between qalats while under direct enemy small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire. Once the search was completed, Sergeant Dion coordinated and controlled the security of detained personnel within the objective. 

"Sergeant Dion was among the last to leave the site for exfiltration, covering the movements of the commandos and his fellow teammates, and ensuring no one was left behind while continuing to engage enemy combatants." 

The narrative also says Sergeant Dion's "expertise, skill, and ingenuity allowed the detachment to successfully complete every combat patrol during the deployment..." 

"Sergeant Dion and Dena are living proof that training leads to success," said Tech. Sgt. Jeffrey Dean, who recently passed on the course director reins of the Phoenix Warrior K-9 track to Staff Sgt. Luke Plemons. "From what we've learned from some of Sergeant Dion's after-action reports are there are updates we can put into our K-9 training here with Phoenix Warrior. From the frontlines of the Global War on Terrorism to our classroom, we want to give our students the best information possible." 

As for Sergeant Dion and Dena, they should be home for the holidays. 

"Sure, the deployment's been good and the best I've ever been on, but I am looking forward to getting home to my wife Mary Lu," Sergeant Dion said. "We've been blessed to get through this deployment relatively unscathed and we've built a wealth of knowledge that I hope will help others who were like me -- deploying as an MWD handler for the first time." 

Also see:
Air Force Warriors: MWD team arrives in Afghanistan for special duty

Air Force warriors: MWD team trains for Afghanistan deployment