Air Force Warriors: MWD team trains for Afghanistan deployment

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

FORT DIX, N.J. -- He thinks to himself, "We don't have weather like this in Florida." However, even though it's hovering around 25 degrees Fahrenheit, Staff Sgt. Christopher Dion knows it's the work he and his dog, Dena, must do to be ready to go to Afghanistan. 

Across the field, Tech. Sgt. Jeffrey Dean is barking orders for the military working dog teams he's training to get started in the tactical obstacle course designed specifically to present challenges to MWD handlers and dogs. Frost is building on his black instructor cap as he yells to motivate his students. The hat, the students know, is the most notable symbol of the U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center's 421st Combat Training Squadron, where Sergeant Dean works. 

Maybe it's the cold or just the fact that after 10 days of training in the USAF EC's Phoenix Warrior Training Course, these MWD teams are tired. In actuality, the students are taking extra time preparing themselves and their dogs for their fourth try on this course. Today, the course includes the sounds of gunfire for the first time, and teams will have to navigate the course's obstacles while returning fire. 

Sergeant Dion and his 6-year-old German Shepherd Dena, both from the 6th Security Forces Squadron, MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., are the third of four teams going through the obstacle course. 

Sergeant Dion and Dena approach the start of the course. Dena's leash is attached to a clip on her handler's shoulder. 

First, she ran effortlessly through a 12-foot tube. Then without hesitation, Dena jumped a six-foot wall. 

Nearby, Staff Sgt. Brennon Pierce, also an instructor from the 421st CTS, fires M-60 blanks -- the sound roars through this normally quiet, pine-barren range on Fort Dix.
Sergeant Dion returns fire, while Sergeant Dean adds another challenge and throws smoke canisters to reduce visibility. 

Next, the MWD team low crawls through a 10-foot tunnel and continues to advance through the course despite the sounds of gunfire and motivational tactics from their instructors. 

"That's what I like about this training," Sergeant Dion said. "Coming to Fort Dix, where there they have these ranges, it enables us to do a lot of the gunfire training that we otherwise would not be able to do (at home station)." 

Phoenix Warrior happens to be the first official training course for Sergeant Dion and Dena as a team. Sergeant Dion's first assignment as a MWD handler came in October 2007, but he's had plenty of security forces training under his belt. He's been an Army infantry and tank soldier and has worked as an Air Force security forces Airman at both home station and numerous deployed locations. Joining the Army in 1990, the 37-year-old Sergeant Dion never imagined how his life's path would lead. 

"When I first came in to the military in 1990, I actually thought about going in the Air Force to become a dog handler," Sergeant Dion said. "But, as the story goes, my recruiter was late, and the Army guy was there, so I talked to him. The next thing you know, I'm in the Army infantry. I look back at it now, and I can say (the Army) gave me some good times and good experiences." 

Sergeant Dion first became an Airman after the terrorist attacks on America on Sept. 11, 2001, when he transferred from the Army Reserve to the Air Force Reserve in that same month. A native of Massachusetts and a consummate patriot, Sergeant Dion put on his Reserve staff sergeant stripes and went to work at Westover Air Reserve Base, Mass. 

"In early 2002, I was sent to the Air Force Security Forces School at Lackland (AFB, Texas)," Sergeant Dion said. "Soon thereafter, I was activated to full-time duty and deployed to MacDill to augment their security forces unit because many of their forces were deployed for the Global War on Terrorism." 

It was at MacDill where he first started doing some "bite work" with the canine handlers in the 6th SFS. "Bite work is simply working with the dogs on their attack and defending skills," Sergeant Dion added. 

Sergeant Dion completed the MacDill deployment in February 2003 and soon was deactivated from active service. As part of a family decision, he returned to active duty in March 2004. 

"At that time, they took the E-5 (position) I held in the Reserves and made me a senior airman and sent me to Buckley AFB, Colo.," Sergeant Dion said. 

In 2005, Sergeant Dion deployed to Southwest Asia for eight months where he did some more training with military working dogs. Following his deployment, Sergeant Dion attended the security forces K-9 school at Lackland. He then returned to Buckley only to find out there were more handlers than dogs -- he had to wait for his chance. 

"It wasn't long after that I deployed again -- this time to Camp Bucca, Iraq," Sergeant Dion said. During this 10-month deployment he worked security operations, improvised explosive device identification and vehicle NCO duties. Then, he received orders to move to his current assignment at MacDill. 

"By the end of October (of 2007), I was assigned to Dena, and we've been working together ever since," Sergeant Dion said. 

Dena, also known as an explosives detection canine, is a veteran like her handler. She has deployed to Iraq and Kuwait in recent years and has proven her skills more than once, Sergeant Dion said. 

"This is an exciting time for me," Sergeant Dion said. "To be able to deploy with Dena and do the MWD mission and to be in this training course with her has made our bond that much stronger." 

Sergeant Dion admits there have been some challenges in his training relationship with Dena, but the challenges aren't with the dog. 

"Dena is a very good dog to work with -- she's very forgiving," Sergeant Dion said. "I haven't trained consistently with a dog for nearly two years, so in some ways I had to re-learn some of the K-9 stuff. She's a very forgiving dog to do that with." 

As far as Phoenix Warrior is concerned, Sergeant Dion has looked to Sergeant Dean, the course director of the K-9 track, for guidance. He says he's learned more than he'd ever imagined. 

"A great example of his guidance was when we had the live-fire convoy training. During part of that, there were SF troops with M-4s firing from towers at targets," Sergeant Dion said. "Sergeant Dean had us take the dogs right up next to the towers and just practice basic obedience with them. Through all of this, from what I've come to learn, if you are able to do basic obedience with a dog while there is gunfire going on, right above the dog's head, it kind of gets them used to the conditions. It gives you added control over your dog." 

Sergeant Dean said the K-9 track for Phoenix Warrior is only nine months old but is paying dividends for teams like Sergeant Dion and Dena. 

"The USAF EC has provided the resources which allow this track of the Phoenix Warrior course to flourish into the incredible and invaluable training experience for every handler who has and will attend," Sergeant Dean said. "This course provides MWD teams with experiences that are new or serving as a refresher of skills that are a must to ensure the protection of themselves and others and their safe return." 

Sergeant Dean added that because of the track's short history, good, hard feedback of successes is still in the compilation stage. 

"Our main purpose is to prepare MWD teams for situations and threats they may encounter in theater," Sergeant Dean said. "This course was developed based on after-actions report from K-9 handlers who have deployed before such as from me and my staff. As time goes on, we'll learn more about how valuable it's been to our students."
Sergeant Dion believes he and Dena are better prepared, and from here it means moving on to final deployment preparation. 

"Once I get back to MacDill, I won't be leaving right away," Sergeant Dion said. "We'll be doing a lot of follow-up training and carrying on with the lessons we learned here. Once I'm in Afghanistan, I'll be better able to tell you how this entire experience has prepared me."