running up that hill
- Jan 3, 2007
- in Wonderland, with my Alice
Dogs have been fighting alongside U.S. soldiers for more than 100 years, seeing combat in the Civil War and World War I. But their service was informal; only in 1942 were canines officially inducted into the U.S. Army. Today, they're a central part of U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan -- as of early 2010 the U.S. Army had 2,800 active-duty dogs deployed (the largest canine contingent in the world). And these numbers will continue to grow as these dogs become an ever-more-vital military asset.
So it should come as no surprise that among the 79 commandos involved in Operation Neptune Spear that resulted in Osama bin Laden's killing, there was one dog -- the elite of the four-legged variety. And though the dog in question remains an enigma -- another mysterious detail of the still-unfolding narrative of that historic mission -- there should be little reason to speculate about why there was a dog involved: Man's best friend is a pretty fearsome warrior.
Above, a U.S. soldier with the 10th Special Forces Group and his dog leap off the ramp of a MH-47 Chinook helicopter during water training over the Gulf of Mexico as part of exercise Emerald Warrior on March 1.
Daredevil dogs: The question of how the dog got into bin Laden's compound is no puzzle -- the same way the special ops team did, by being lowered from an MH-60s helicopter. In fact, U.S. Air Force dogs have been airborne for decades, though the earliest flying dogs accompanied Soviet forces in the 1930s.
Dogs usually jump in tandem with their trainers, but when properly outfitted with flotation vests they can make short jumps into water on their own. A U.S. Navy SEAL, Mike Forsythe, and his dog, Cara -- pictured above -- recently broke the world record for "highest man/dog parachute deployment" by jumping from 30,100 feet.
The scent of war: According to Mike Dowling, a former Marine Corps dog handler who served in Iraq, there's a simple explanation for why the Navy SEALs took a dog along on the Osama raid: "A dog's brain is dominated by olfactory senses." In fact, Dowling says, a dog can have up to 225 million olfactory receptors in their nose -- the part of their brain devoted to scent is 40 times greater than that of a human.
"When you're going on a mission," Dowling says, "a raid or a patrol, insurgents are sneaky -- they like to hide stuff from you. But a dog can smell them. .... [Think about] Saddam Hussein ... what if Osama had been [hiding] in a hole in the ground? A dog could find that. A dog could alert them to where he's hiding because of the incredible scent capabilities. ... You can only see what you can see. You can't see what you don't see. A dog can see it through his nose."
Above U.S. Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade wait for helicopter transport as part of Operation Khanjar at Camp Dwyer in Helmand Province in Afghanistan on July 2, 2009.
It's not the gear that makes the dog: Military working dogs (MWDs in Army parlance) may not enjoy all the privileges of being full-fledged soldiers, but the U.S. military no longer considers them mere equipment. (The war dogs deployed to Vietnam during that conflict were classified as "surplus equipment" and left behind.) Today, MWDs are outfitted with equipment of their own -- a range of specialized gear that includes Doggles (protective eye wear), body armor, life vests, gas masks, long-range GPS-equipped vests, and high-tech canine "flak jackets."
In August 2010, The Register, a British online tech publication, reported that "top-secret, super-elite U.S. Navy SEAL special forces are to deploy heavily armoured bulletproof dogs equipped with infrared nightsight cameras and an 'intruder communication system' able to penetrate concrete walls." The article also reported that the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Group had "awarded an $86,000 contract to Canadian firm K9 Storm Inc. for the supply of 'Canine Tactical Assault Vests' for wear by SEAL dogs." The K9 catalogue boasts an array of high-tech canine devices, from storm lights to long lines and leads to an assortment of vests -- assault, aerial insertion, and patrol-SWAT -- which are rated from "excellent" to "good" in protecting the animal from harm due to everything from bullets to ice picks.