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

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol
  • U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center Public Affairs
This is the second 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.)

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan -- Climbing down the stairs of the commercial DC-10 in near darkness on the tarmac was a stirring moment for Staff Sgt. Chris Dion.

The early-May Afghanistan air at Bagram is dryer and cooler than many places in the world. This is mainly due to the majestic mountains rising up around this base blocking out warmer air. The first experience of it in the middle of the night can give quite a shiver.

On this night, cold or not, Sergeant Dion doesn't wait long to get with his deployment partner -- a 6-year-old German Shepherd named Dena. This military working dog, or MWD, team traveled thousands of miles together to get to this point, starting at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., then stopping off in numerous countries. It was no surprise to him that jet lag was draining his energy levels just a little.

"Our flight was required to arrive in darkness for security reasons, according to the pilot," Sergeant Dion said.

From there, it was a matter of initial in-processing and finding a bunk in one of the hundreds of billeting tents dotting the base's landscape. Then Sergeant Dion and Dena could get some rest, eat and eventually get to work.

His mission on this deployment is to support special forces through the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force -- Afghanistan. For an MWD team, that's going to mean many missions with U.S. special forces from the Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force and coalition countries. It also means working with the ever-building Afghan army.

Sergeant Dion and Dena's presence in a war zone is also wrought with military history. Dogs have been used since ancient times to support a war effort and throughout Air Force history with security forces. MWDs have seen action in Korea and Vietnam and now in Iraq and Afghanistan. With this MWD team, they are writing their own chapter of history.

"I'm excited to finally do what I've desired and trained to do for so long -- be an MWD handler," said Sergeant Dion who is deployed as an MWD handler for the first time. "I have full confidence in Dena and our abilities together as a team."

Getting to this point -- feeling the cool Afghan air, working on special forces missions and spending 24 hours a day, seven days a week with Dena hasn't been easy for Sergeant Dion. A lot of his time has been spent training.

First it was going to Air Force security forces MWD handler training in 2005. Then he had to wait to get an assignment where he could work as a handler -- which didn't come until October 2007. Then it was getting acquainted with Dena and working on the basics.

After three months of daily work as an MWD team, Sergeant Dion and Dena (Team Double-D as he calls it) set off to Fort Dix, N.J., for the Air Force Phoenix Warrior Training Course with the U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center's 421st Combat Training Squadron.
There, he and Dena went through live-fire, explosives detection and numerous other types of training regimen to be deployment ready. Sergeant Dion reflected on some of the training that he believes will help him in his mission in Afghanistan.

"In Phoenix Warrior, it was the live-fire training as well as open area and roadway detection that helped build Team Double D's confidence and ability," Sergeant Dion said.

After Phoenix Warrior, he said it was further refresher training with fellow handlers at the MacDill kennels who honed what he learned at Fort Dix.

"At MacDill, it was the expertise of our trainers - Staff Sgt. Ian Spivey and Tech. Sgt. Jerrel 'J. C.' Colston - who motivated me to learn more," Sergeant Dion said. "These two individuals epitomize professional training and dog handling. Their tutelage and wisdom continue to be an invaluable resource that is available to me even now through phone calls and e-mail."

Sergeant Spivey, who along with Sergeant Colston work as trainers in the 6th Security Forces Squadron canine kennels, said they spent on average of three hours a day, five days a week, preparing Sergeant Dion and Dena for the deployment.

"We started even before he went to Phoenix Warrior," Sergeant Spivey said. "I along with Sergeant Colston, took all of the experience and what we learned from being deployed ourselves and did what we could to prepare him. We wanted to get him in the mindset of being deployed. We went through everything from how you and your dog are with your gear on to how your dog reacts to gunfire."

Sergeant Spivey said between the hundreds of hours training at MacDill and at Fort Dix for Phoenix Warrior, Sergeant Dion and Dena have come together to be an effective team.

"As a handler, he's opened up a lot more," Sergeant Spivey said. "At first, when he was new, we worked to put him in a relaxed frame of mind and make it fun. He started from there and he and Dena started to become one. He really put in his dedication and time to build that rapport."

Sergeant Dion said building on his bond with Dena was the key to the transition from home station to deployed environment.

"Prior to this deployment I put in additional voluntary time at the kennels in order to continue working on our bond and preparedness," Sergeant Dion said. "We did many after duty together during the week and on weekends as well. Now that we are in Afghanistan, we live together in the same room so we're together nearly 24 hours a day - seven days a week."

In the coming months the MWD team will be busy doing what Sergeant Dion calls "nation building" and "special missions." It's something he fully looks forward to.

"With Dena's calm temperament and demeanor, she is an excellent ambassador to a culture who fears dogs," Sergeant Dion said. "Through her, maybe we can teach the Afghanis the benefits of MWDs as a local and national resource."

Other probable missions may be to search out explosives in open areas, roadways, houses, compounds, on vehicles or wherever else to help make Afghanistan safer for the people and the coalition forces supporting Operation Enduring Freedom, Sergeant Dion said.

"We may also be called upon to clear areas where dignitaries and government officials may go to ensure these high-value personnel are safe," Sergeant Dion said. "Now, who knows what else we'll be called upon to do? Whatever it is, I know we'll do it successfully thanks to Phoenix Warrior training and the expert trainers back home at MacDill."

Tech. Sgt. Jeffrey Dean, course director for the Phoenix Warrior canine track at the USAF EC, said he looks forward to feedback from his former students.

"The course was designed from after-action reports so realistically, the feedback I'll get from him actually serves the same purpose as when we started this course," Sergeant Dean said. "There's nothing stopping us from changing this course from class to class to teach new tactics, techniques and procedures. I try and stay in contact with all my former students just to gain new information. If there are things they experience or see down range that we didn't cover or they feel would be important to teach, then I have the ability to incorporate changes into a new class."

Providing feedback will take a several more months, though. Sergeant Dion said until then, he will keep his mind and body occupied with whatever needs being done.

"I'll continue to work on more detection training with Dena, read the Bible and build on my relationship with the Lord, exercise when able to and make phone calls and e-mail home to my wife Mary Lu," Sergeant Dion said. "I'll do this knowing that if not for the loved ones back home, there would be no reason to be here. It is for their safety and freedom that we fight this fight. In return they give us their love, support, and strength. There is a long road ahead and I look forward knowing a lot of people have helped me get ready for job I have to do."