MARINE CORPS AIR STATION BEAUFORT, S.C. --
Not all Marines wear flak jackets and carry rifles; some have fur and walk on four legs. Military working dogs and their handlers are incredibly valuable members of the Marine Corps community and have extremely important jobs.
An MWD named Xxenos passed away earlier this year at the age of 10. Xxenos had been retired three years and been deployed three times during his career; twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan.
As a specialized search dog, Xxenos was trained to detect explosives off the leash and a certain distance away from his handler.
"They do this to maintain as much stand-off distance from the Marines to the explosive as possible," said Master Sgt. Frank Ginn, the family readiness officer for Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron aboard Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.
Dogs that are on a leash are usually only six feet form their handler which puts Marines in close proximity to the blast zone. Another lifesaving measure for MWD teams is communication.
"The SSDs wear a harness with a radio attached so their handlers can give them verbal commands when they are off-leash," said Ginn. "They can also give hand and arm signals to the dogs."
These handlers are trained to recognize tell-tale signs from the dogs if they detect something. During training, if the dog is following something that is not a threat, the handler will steer him away until he finds the explosives.
"The dog alerts the handler that he smells something there," said Ginn. "It comes from a well-trained relationship between the dog and the handler. Xxenos was able to let his handler know when he found something so we could call (explosive ordnance disposal) in and detonate the charge, or mark the area and bypass it."
In 2011, Xxenos went on his last deployment embedded with 2nd Marine Division. During that deployment, he and his handler found a total of 120 pounds of homemade explosives.
"I went out on patrols with him and his handler and slept in the dirt with them," said Ginn. "One night we were coming back into our camp and our vehicle hit an improvised explosive device. We got out and set up security because we knew that there could be another explosive out there. Xxenos and his handler were in the vehicle behind us so they pushed out and the dog located another IED. If we had hit that one, the ending could have been very different. We all owe him our lives."
The trust that a handler builds with his dog is the key to a well-functioning and effective team. A Marine has to be able to fully understand the signals his dog is giving and vice versa.
Xxenos was a Belgian Malinois, a dog breed that is known for having a good sense of smell and the ability to form strong bonds with humans. These traits made him perfect for the SSD program.
Just like humans who go through traumatic events during war, dogs can be affected by combat too. After his last deployment it became clear that Xxenos could no longer function in the field due to the high amounts of stress.
"He went through the adoption process and it worked out that I was looking for a dog at the time so he came home with me and became a part of my family," said Ginn. "My bond with him grew stronger because of our history of deploying together. He was a true warrior to the end."
Xxenos died of cancer surrounded by his loving family and brothers in arms.
"These working dogs are not a piece of gear," said Ginn. "They’re living breathing animals with their own personalities who are part of the team. They are tough, smart, and they are Marines."