WE START THE WALK.
IED Alley stretches before us, a deserted length of rubble-strewn, sunbaked dirt. To the uninitiated, there’s nothing obvious here that screams out violence and danger. To me, gazing down IED Alley is like peering into the very jaws of hell.
On either side of the route are the broken mounds of shattered earth and the craters where roadside bombs have blown themselves—and all too often their targets—to smithereens. But luckily, typically, Rex, my search dog, is out front alone and unperturbed, eager to sniff out the bombs.
I’ve felt fear every day that we’ve led these patrols. It’s been my constant companion here in Iraq. But this morning, the terror had me gripped as never before.
It was Rex who gave me the strength to get up and to carry on. He sent me one look—Come on, partner, we can do this; you got me by your side—and I knew then that I had to raise my game to the level of my dog.
I look to my fellow marines as my own brothers, and Rex and I are tasked with keeping them safe from the insurgents’ bombs out here. Having my courageous, crazy, stubborn, loyal, dedicated, devilishly handsome dog by my side helps me deal with the enormous stress of that responsibility.
I gaze down IED Alley and give Rex the command, the magic words: “Seek. . . Seek. . . Seek. . .” But right now they’re rasping out from a throat that’s dry and constricted with fear.
In response, Rex is off. His nose starts going like a suction pump: slurp, slurp, slurp. He’s dropped his muzzle low to the ground, and he’s vacuuming up the scent just inches off the dirt. His tail’s horizontal behind him, the end flicked up just a fraction, as his head sweeps from side to side.
I’d know that posture anywhere: Here I am on the search, and I’m loving it. Rex always has loved sniffing out the bombs. It’s like he was born to do this work. From the earliest days of training he was one of the few and the proud—an unbeatable Marine Corps arms- and explosives-detection dog.
I’m a couple of paces behind him, his lead looped around my left hand. My M16 assault rifle is slung over my back on its sling, and I’m gripping my Beretta M9 pistol in my right hand. My rifle’s too long and unwieldy to use much when searching with my dog.
If Rex steps on an improvised explosive device, we’re both as good as done for. But we’ve been ordered to clear IED Alley so our patrol can pass through it, and the two of us out front on foot is the only way to do it.
To Rex, clearing the route of death is all a fantastic game. I’ve shown him a flash of his rubber ball—his reward—and he knows if he finds the target scent he gets to play with it. It’s only me who’s racked with this visceral, heart-stopping fear, fear that the next step Rex’s paws take may be his, and my, last.
Rex’s whole focus is his sense of smell now, and that’s how he’s navigating. He’s moving through a world defined by scent. He’s tracking smells on the hot, dusty air, his footfalls dictated by the direction those odors are coming from. He lifts his head now and then to check on his location—that he’s not about to walk into a wall or tumble into a ditch.
We’re a third of the way down IED Alley. My pulse is thumping like a jackhammer. Every time Rex raises a paw and places it onto the baking-hot earth, I tense for the blast. But I force myself to keep moving forward with him, and the sweat’s pouring off me in buckets.
It’s shortly after first light, yet already the temperature out here must be pushing 100 degrees. If it’s this hot for me, how must it be for Rex, all wrapped up in his thick, shaggy, charcoal-brown coat of fur? But nothing seems to faze my dog, not even the burning Iraqi sun that’s beating down on his head and shoulders.
I see Rex approaching a small patch of dirt ahead of us that looks as if it might recently have been disturbed. The difference in this area is minimal, just a slightly different color from the earth all around it, as if it’s been dug up and tamped down again.
An unusual area of terrain is one of the signs that an IED may be buried there. I’m hyperalert, and my threat radar is working overtime. I try to work out what might lie beneath that patch of dirt, because I can’t let Rex go walking right over it. Not for the first time since we deployed to Iraq, I curse the fact that I don’t have X-ray vision, that I can’t see the bombs lying just below earth’s surface.
Rex pauses just a few paces short of that patch of dirt. His nostrils flare, and suddenly he’s sucking in great lungfuls of air. He turns his head this way and that, sampling the scent, until he’s got his nose pressed up tight against the hot mud of the earth.
Rex snuffles hard a good few times, then glances back at me. His sparkling amber eyes are wide with the thrill of the search. There’s an unspoken bond between us. I can read his every expression, and I figure I can pretty much read his mind.
This look means: Hey, I really think I’m onto something here.
“Easy, boy, careful,” I whisper at him. “Easy does it, Rexy. What you think you got there, boy?”
He moves ahead a foot or so until he’s level with the patch of dirt. His muzzle swings left and right, before he’s staring right at it. He pokes his snout forward, until he’s sniffing at the very surface of that disturbed area.
His entire body goes rigid. He gives me a quick, intense, piercing look: Freakin’ hell, get in here and check this out!
I feel my blood run cold. Rex never false responds—signaling that he’s found something when actually he hasn’t. There’s some kind of explosive device buried right in front of my dog’s nose, of that I am 100 percent certain.
I don’t know why I’m sure—it can only be in response to the unspoken message that’s flashed between Rex and me—but I lunge forward, and with one hand I grab his collar and haul him backward.
In my mind’s eye I can picture a gleeful Iraqi insurgent hunched over a detonator device, punching the firing pin, and hoping to blow the shaggy dog and his handler into shreds of flesh and gore.
With my free hand I reach for my radio so I can send out an alert to the rest of the patrol strung out behind us. I press the Send button and yell out a warning: “There’s a—”
My words are lost in this deafening roar of an explosion. I hit the dirt and elbow myself forward and dive on top of Rex, to shield him from the blast. But an instant later I sense that it’s not the bomb in front of us that’s gone off. If it were, we’d both be dead by now.
Just to the east of us above the palm trees, a massive plume of smoke and debris is fisting into the sky. An IED has been triggered there, to one side of our road.
The harsh, juddering crackle of gunfire thunders out of the smoke and dust as the insurgents unleash a barrage of fire in a follow-up attack. I roll across Rex, getting my body between him and the pounding gunfire.
I’m wearing body armor; Rex isn’t. I’m not about to let anyone shoot my best buddy. I wrap all six feet of me around him and pull his thick fur in tight against me.
As I hold him there, I whisper into his ear: “It’s okay, boy, it’s okay. It’s all gonna be all right. . . .”
© 2011 Mike Dowling