Four-legged heroes


From The Antelope Valley Press in California comes the story of our K—9 contingent in Iraq. Chief Warrant Officer Peter Zorba, of Squadron HMM—764 "The Moonlighters" writes:

I fly into Baghdad almost every night, but this night's mission was a special ASR (assault support request).

A Marine K—9 had been killed and another dog wounded earlier in the day and we were going there to pick up the dead K—9, the wounded K—9 and their Marine handlers. How these Marines were attacked, whether in contact with insurgents, a sniper or an improvised explosive device (IED), we never knew.

We took off from our base and flew through the dark, star—clustered Arabian night in an open combat spread. Radios crackled and disembodied voices rolled through my helmet. The lights of small towns scattered across the desert floor, illuminated with a green glow through my NVG's (night vision goggles) passed below us and in and out of my gun sights.

At about midnight we were on short final into a small LZ with battle—scarred concrete walls, and a hardened outpost with a bullet—riddled watchtower. As we touched down, I hopped out the back of our helicopter and watched as our "dash 2" landed about 40 feet to our 7 o'clock.

The LZ was dark and no one was around. Through my NVG's I could see the Marines in the tower, and the bunker at its base, watching us, not really thrilled to see us there, two phrogs spinning on the deck inside their perimeter. And why would they be, as we presented a wonderfully enhanced target for indirect fire (IDF) in their position. Not that they don't take IDF often enough, just that we were now an added bonus to any one already predisposed to 'throwing' a few mortars or RPG's our way ... and theirs!

We waited. Five minutes. Ten minutes. After 15 minutes, with still no sign of anyone, or any dogs, the crew began to grow a little uneasy:

"We're here, where the hell are they?"

"Goddamnit. Who the ... is running this place."

"Do you see anybody, gunner?"

"Negative, sir."

"... If we don't see anybody soon, let's get dash 2 out of here, so at least there's only one of us on the deck here in case we take incoming. You copy that (call sign)."

"Roger that. Copy all."

Just then a door of a small industrial looking building about a hundred meters away, opened and I could see Marines moving awkwardly towards us. They were carrying their rifles with their outside hands and with the inside hand, each held the edge of a body bag. Behind them followed another Marine with a shouldered rifle, MOLLIE pack, and his hands were on the back of the bag.

But this Marine's hands held the trailing edge of the body bag more like a priest would grasp a holy cloth or a child his mother's hem, not really supporting any weight, just holding on. As they loaded the body bag into our bird, I took the young Marine's pack and stowed it and then got him buckled in. The wounded K—9 and his handler were loaded into dash 2, and I sat back down behind my .50 cal and called us clear of wires and trees as we lifted into the night sky.

Once airborne, and on the go, out of the cultural lighting from over the town, I looked back to see a big Marine, head in his hands, sitting in darkness, bent over the body of his dog.

That was a long flight. My pilot, a battle—hardened colonel, kept asking me "How's our boy doing?" as if he were a worried parent checking on his child. He handed me back a small package of chocolate chip cookies he'd been saving for the return to base. "Give 'em to our boy. He's had a rough day of it." I unhooked my gunner's belt and walked back to the young man. I put my hand on his shoulder, handed him the cookies and patted him on the back, smiling some compassionate, but dumb, smile there in the dark, 300' somewhere over Iraq. What else can you do?

When we touched back down at our base, the passenger/cargo terminal sent a vehicle out for the dogs. I helped the Marine with his gear, out away from our rotor arc, and then ran back up the ramp and into our bird just in time to grab one of the terminal guys as he was reaching for the body of our Marine, thinking it was just another piece of gear.

"Hey man — what the ... are you doing?!" I yelled over the engine noise. "Leave him alone. We'll get him." The crew chief and I reverently bent over and gently lifted the body bag and carried it out of our plane. I have carried body bags before here, and I was surprised by how light this one was.

I placed my arms under the dog's body and gently set him down in the vehicle. And then, out of sheer habit, I petted the poor pup on the shoulder ... or maybe it was his hip. His body was still soft, even inside the thick black polyethylene bag. As I turned to head back to my plane, I was face to face with the fallen Marine's master.

The young corporal looked at me, he had seen me pet his dog, and I like to think he saw how reverently we carried his fallen comrade's body out of the plane, but maybe not. Red eyes and a sad, exhausted face were eclipsed by a smile of gratitude as he shook my hand and mouthed the words "thank you." Then he was gone and we were back on the plane and set to lift.

Once back on our line after we had shut down, we all sat down in the back. It was quiet and no one really spoke until the colonel asked, "Did you take care of our boy? Was he hurting too bad? Did you do right by the pup? Did we treat them both with the respect and honor they deserved?"

"Yes sir." I replied last year while we were here, the brevity code for friendly KIA was "Angels." I don't know what it is this time for OIF III, but it is a very fitting term. So I told the colonel "Yes, sir, the 'Angel' was carried with respect, and treated with dignity and compassion, as was his handler." The colonel liked this and we all agreed that the dog was a Marine ... as much as any of us.

But on another level, that kid had not only lost his partner, but he'd lost his dog, a dog that I am sure he loved and that loved him back. That had touched us all deep down somewhere, where you're still a kid yourself. We were proud to have been able to do what we did for this fellow Marine, this 'Angel', and each of us would willingly do it again any time. That's what Marines do.

I guess what I am saying is that we continually hear the question asked, "Why we are here?" I heard a Marine say yesterday, "Don't ask me why I am here. I don't make our country's policy, I execute policy." I guess to me "why" is not really that important.

What is important is 'how' I am here. To me, this story illuminates that "how," by showing the nature of the Corps that makes Marines what they are, and in turn, is made what it is by the Marines devoted to it and to each other.

God bless the Marines. All of them.

Hat tip: Russ Vaughn