COMBAT OUTPOST TAGHAZ, Afghanistan – I was lifting weights Tuesday night in the dusty, prison-inspired gym here when Cpl. Byron Willis ran up to two of his fellow Marines.
“The dog ate all the cigars!” he exclaimed.
Willis, 24, was referring to Sgt. Crank, the improvised explosive device detector dog on post. Willis, Crank’s handler, and the black Labrador retriever are assigned to Weapons Company 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C.
The back story: A sergeant had teased Crank with a toy football earlier in the day but wouldn’t let him have it, Willis said today. When no one was looking, Crank snuck out of his kennel and knocked over a cabinet on which the ball was perched. He shredded the squishy toy, then continued his mischief, tossing paperwork and other items about the office.
Finally, the kicker: He found the Marines’ cigars. Gulp.
Willis, a machine gunner by trade, wasn’t surprised by the mischief. In fact, he warned his fellow Marines about teasing Crank, he said.
“I said, ‘Hey, you better not show him that football. He’s going to get it!'” Willis said, shaking his head with a smile. “This dog is smart. Just to entertain himself, he sometimes does stuff like that.”
Today, photographer Colin Kelly and I were introduced to Crank, who’s about 5 years old. Remarkably, the dog is on his fifth combat deployment, each about seven months long.
IED detector dogs – primarily labs – have deployed by the hundreds in the last few years with infantry units, assisting U.S. troops in finding explosives hidden by the Taliban in Afghanistan’s trails and ravines. The dogs frequently get no more than a couple weeks off after a deployment, Willis said. As long as they’re healthy and ready, they go through additional training and are reassigned to another deploying infantry battalion.
Like just about everything else in Afghanistan, there’s a drawdown in numbers for dogs downrange. K2 Solutions, out of Southern Pines, N.C., has put up some of the older dogs for adoption, with first dibs going to each animal’s current handler, Willis said. After that, previous handlers also have the opportunity to adopt their former canine sidekicks, he added.
Willis said he plans to stay in the Corps and hopes to become a critical skills operator with Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command. Crank will be retired after this deployment, however, and settle in with Willis and his family in the U.S.
Crank has found multiple IEDs during his career, although the relatively quiet nature of Willis’ deployment in Khanashin district has restricted the dog’s opportunities this year. Crank continues to respond well to gunfire, however.
“He’s usually pretty good with it,” Willis said. “We took contact a few months ago, and for the most part, he stayed right on my hip.”
On the other hand, exotic animals in Helmand province have given Crank pause. He isn’t accustomed to the stench of a camel, for example.
“He’ll kind of talk to you, in a sense,” Willis said of finding new animals. “He’ll be like, ‘What the hell?'”