Vigilance: Dog teams work to keep America’s largest Pacific air base safe
By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 14, 2018
KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — The newest military working dog handler at the Pacific’s largest U.S. air base was on guard as he searched Kadena’s passenger terminal late last month.
Senior Airman James Burger, 21, walked cautiously a few steps behind the 18th Security Forces Squadron’s most experienced canine, a 13-year-old German shepherd named Judi.
The pair was on the lookout for explosives that had been stashed throughout the terminal, under the watchful eye of squadron leadership and their Japan Air Self-Defense Force counterparts.
Burger and Judi were taking part in bilateral training aimed at sharpening their skills to ensure that U.S. working dog handlers and their Japanese counterparts operate at the same skill level.
“What did you have for breakfast this morning?” Staff Sgt. Mario Rey, a trainer, asked Burger as he approached the pair. Burger ignored him and pushed on.
“I’m trying to distract him,” Rey said.
Without warning, Judi rushed toward the baggage-claim conveyor belt and indicated she had found explosives. Burger followed with a spring in his step.
He congratulated his partner in a high-pitched voice and tossed her a rubber dog toy as a reward. Judi’s tail wagged and her tongue hung from her open mouth, as if she were smiling.
Burger has come a long way from working with horses on his grandparents’ ranch, just outside his hometown of Plainview, Neb., to working as a dog handler and military policeman on Okinawa. To obtain the kennel master recommendation needed to apply for a handler’s position, he had to clean the squadron kennels in his spare time for more than a year.
Being a handler is important, he said, “because, if I know that we can do our job well enough, I can save other people’s lives.”
Burger arrived at Kadena, his first duty station, in June 2016. He had always wanted to be a police officer, so he joined security forces as a “straight-leg” — a dog handler’s term for a regular military policeman. A desire to work with animals came naturally to him, Burger said.
“I think my raising had a lot to do with it,” he said. “I’m used to caring for those animals.”
His grandparents always stressed that the horses eat first, Burger said. He brought that attitude to becoming a dog handler.
“It’s incredible what a dog team can do,” he said. “It just can’t be matched by any machine.”
Burger approached the kennel staff in February 2017 about becoming a military working dog handler. They told him he would have to clean the kennels for a year at their remote headquarters at the base munitions facility.
Burger said he obliged enthusiastically.
“For me, it wasn’t that difficult,” he said. “I’m used to farm work, cleaning out kennels, spraying out kennels, doing little grunt stuff here and there.”
Following his year of voluntary servitude, Burger spent 11 weeks training with the military working dog program at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. The 341st Training Squadron there trains all Defense Department dogs and handlers in patrol, drug and explosive detection and “specialized mission functions,” according to the unit’s website.
The dogs are not pets, but their handlers are often required to care for them even when they are off-duty, kennel master Master Sgt. Arthur Sawyer said.
The 18th Security Forces Squadron has nine dogs and 14 handlers.
Burger returned to Kadena at the end of October. He’s had Judi ever since.
He must now build a rapport with his dog before going through an arduous validation process – a series of trials – before he is certified to join the fleet.
“I feel pretty confident,” Burger said. “Judi’s a very good dog. I can learn a lot from her.”
Bite and hold
A dog handler’s day is usually spent working to stay sharp or checking vehicles for explosives or narcotics, the 18th Security Forces Squadron handlers said.
On Nov. 19, they gathered for training at a field on base. Burger donned a thick protective bite suit. He then feigned belligerence and ran, allowing Staff Sgt. Charles Gamez and his 4-year-old dog, Biba, to work on their commands and apprehension techniques.
“They’re not only looking for their handler’s cues, they’re looking for aggressive behavior,” Sawyer said. “All the dogs are trained to bite and hold.”
Burger bolted and Biba gave chase. She was about to lunge at the airman, but he froze. Gamez gave a command. She sat and turned back toward her handler waiting for instructions.
Gamez waited a moment, then gave her a command: “Get him.”
Biba obliged, sank her teeth into the padded sleeve over Burger’s arm and hung on limply.
Back at squadron headquarters, Gamez ran Biba through an obstacle course, up and over obstacles, beams and stairs. He directed her to check for scents in certain nooks and crannies and to halt on command. Biba shined.
“Good job, mama,” Gamez said in the high-pitched voice used by all handlers. He tossed her a rubber toy.
The handlers generally spend five hours a day working with their dogs.
On the other side of the base, Staff Sgt. Eduardo Alcaraz and his rambunctious 4-year-old dog, Sony, were getting ready for a guard shift at the base’s gate.
During a shift-change meeting at squadron headquarters, the handler and his dog received their tasking orders — foot patrols, building checks and vehicle inspections at the gate — before heading out for the day.
As trucks arrived at Kadena’s front gate, Alcaraz let Sony run around the vehicles, sniffing, on a long leash. He pointed to things for her to inspect.
Sony has a reputation for being hard to work with because she is so energetic and independent. However, Alcaraz — a 27-year-old Texan — said that’s an advantage, because Sony isn’t afraid to make a mistake checking something out.
“She’s not the one to stand in one place,” he said. “But she’s independent enough to go for something. In the kennel, she’s skittish, but out here, she’s sassy.”
A dog and handler team can average 60 vehicle inspections in a shift, Alcaraz said. On this day, Sony didn’t find anything.
“We’re here to make sure nobody brings anything or sneaks anything on base,” he said. “This is our job. I love it.”
The handlers have had to respond to three real-world situations in the past year, Sawyer said. Two were for reports of an active shooter and the third was a bomb threat.
That is why they are constantly testing themselves, each and every week.
“You see an airman up at the gate every day, protecting the flight line every day, and the dogs, with their potential capabilities, can expand that even more,” Sawyer said. “[The teams are] just a force multiplier for our defender force.”