VOGELWEH, Germany -- U.S. military personnel numbers in Afghanistan have been decreasing over the past couple of years. There is one set of troops in combat, however, that is increasing: military working dogs.
Because of their keen sense of smell and acute intelligence, military working dogs are becoming increasingly crucial to U.S. military's efforts in the war on terror.
But the job does not come without risks. They, along with their handlers, lay it on the line daily for the safety of those around them.
Military Dog Center
When servicemen and women are injured in the war zone, they are normally transported to Landstuhl, Germany, where they receive some of the best medical care on the planet.
In recent years, more military dogs have been wounded in the line of duty as well. When that happens, they're sent to the Military Dog Center in nearby Vogelweh.
"We can go months without seeing any dogs, and then we can go a month where we might see four or five," U.S. Army Maj. Jacqueline Parker, a board certified veterinary surgeon, told CBN News.
"We see more during the summer months, which kind of corresponds with when the action picks up in Afghanistan," she explained.
The military dog center sees as many as 20 dogs a year coming from the combat zone in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other places.
Military canine Theo arrived a few days ago from Afghanistan where he was burned just from the hot sand. He's getting great care from the vet techs here in Germany.
"Theo's treatment is basically just going to be bandage changes every couple days," Parker said. "Maybe eventually he'll be able to go to where he only has to get bandage changes once or twice a week."
"But he'll probably be in bandages for up to six to eight weeks, depending on how well he heals, so we can protect the paws pads from further damage," she predicted.
Brutal War Conditions
Military dogs and their handlers work in difficult and dangerous conditions. Their mission: to find and disarm explosives.
Both dogs and handlers go to training school and then head to the war zone. U.S. Army Spc. Wade Morris is Theo's partner.
"I started out as infantry," Morris told CBN News. "Basically our brigade needed about 20 guys to go to school and do this TEDD program. TEDD stands for Tactical Explosive Detection Dog."
"It was a selection process you had to go through," Morris said. "Twenty of us went to school in Indiana. And from there we did about three months of working with these dogs and then shipped straight over to Afghanistan."
There's no question these dogs save lives by sniffing out explosives. The working conditions can be brutal, with summer temperatures easily topping 110 degrees which can lead to serious injury.
"We were on a dismounted patrol, and we were walking out to a village looking for weapons caches," Morris recalled. "And it got too hot for him, you know. Out there in the sand it just started burning his paws up and there was no shade out there, just an open desert."
"When we came back from mission, he went into his kennel and put his paws in his water, water bowl, and that's when I was able to see that his pads were coming off," he said. "We had to get him medevac'd out of there real quick."
Theo received the same treatment as any other American troop, being medevac'd to Germany in a matter of days. The military vet techs there were ready and waiting to see to Theo's care.
A Man's Best Friend
Morris couldn't be happier.
"The care here has been fantastic," he said. "Theo's been moving around; he's walking, so it's real good."
Fellow veterans often feel a sense of camaraderie and support that few others get to experience. But with military working dogs and their handlers, the phrase 'a dog is a man's best friend', is taken to a whole new level.
"To me personally, the dog means everything," Morris said. "That's my best bud right there. And he's not only saved my life, but who knows how many."
"Once you find an explosive, and you know that, 'Hey I found that and I saved those guys behind me,' that's what it's all about," he added.
Canine Vet Adoption
Most of the canine patients, like Theo, are able to return to work after receiving care in Germany. But when a dog is too injured to return, they are put up for adoption.
"A lot of times the handlers adopt the dogs when they're retired from service," Maj. Parker explained.
"(The) 341st Training Squadron, who is who trains the military working dogs at Lackland, has a site where you can go and sign up for adoption of a military working dog," he said.
And while the military working dogs are not eligible for medals as their human counterparts are, their service is still greatly appreciated.
"No, no they don't get medals," Morris acknowledged. "But boy they get a tennis ball."