Tuesday, May 19, 2009

To The Dogs

*If you have not done so already, please read the following before continuing:
"Hitting the Beaches"

At the time that Cole went through it, there were two types of dog handler training. One, conducted by the Air Force, was for sentry dogs. The other, scout dog training, was overseen by the Army at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Soon after the completion of training and now a Sergeant, Cole again found himself in Vietnam.

“We were walking along one day and I guess I wasn’t paying as close attention as I should have been. I had my M-16 in one hand and the dog’s lead in my left – and I was just sort of gazing off into nowhere. The dog sort of skirted around something, but I didn’t see, so I just walked straight down the little path. Next thing I know, I take a step and hear a loud metallic clank. I froze in place.”

Scout dogs, unlike sentry dogs, are not trained to attack, guard, secure perimeters, or even look particularly intimidating. In essence, their purpose is to replace the point man on a foot patrol. The scout dog will walk point, led closely behind by its handler. The handler, already extremely vulnerable to ambushes, booby traps and a host of other threats, intently watches the dog.

“You watch the dog for any unusual movement. If he smells something, there are probably VC waiting to ambush us. If he pricks his ears, he’s heard something, and we react accordingly.”

Handlers were trained to never remove their eyes from the dog. Cole learned the hard way that there were consequences for failing to do this. As he stood frozen in place atop the booby trap, he thought, “this is it. I’m done.” The squad’s Vietnamese scout crept forward and began poking beneath Cole’s boot with his knife. He expected to find a landmine that would detonate the moment Cole stepped forward.

“He didn’t find anything though. Just mud. The VC had dug a hole in the center of the path, put a tripwire through it, then covered it with a piece of metal and sprinkled some dirt and leaves over it. But I guess it just wasn’t my time. It’d rained the night before, and the hole had filled with mud, so when I stepped in it, the mud kept me from sinking far enough to trip the wire.”

The tripwire itself was secured to a stake on one side of the path, and a rigged artillery round on the other, hidden in the bushes. Once he determined the type of trap set, the Vietnamese scout cut the wire, disabled the detonator, and wound the tripwire up on its stick. He handed the wire and stick to Cole, jabbering away in Vietnamese.

“That night, when I was lying on my cot in the tent, some crusty old Marine captain barged in. He was the quintessential old Marine: big gut, cigar, and really old. He hollered my name.”

“Over here, sir.”

“Son, I don’t know if you’re a religious man, but I think I’d be in church this Sunday if I were you.”

“Yes sir. I will be.” Apparently the entire camp knew about his brush with death. From that point forward, he watched his dog more closely. Forty years later, he still carries a piece of that tripwire on his keychain. The rest of it, still wound to the stick, is framed and hanging on the wall in his home. Whenever his children were young, they’d ask about it. “I’ll tell you someday,” he always responded. When they were much older, he explained it significance.

Dog handlers didn’t operate independently in Vietnam. They were individually assigned to infantry units as requested.

“We’d do a couple weeks with a grunt unit and then they’d chopper us south for a couple days off. Sometimes they’d tell me to be out on the helipad at 10PM or something. I’d show up there, just me and the dog, and then a bird would land and pick us up and it’d just be us on the chopper, which was weird. I’d ask them where I was going, but they’d just say, ‘you’ll find out when you get there.’ I hated that. The longer the flight was, the more I thought, ‘shit, they’re taking me north into the DMZ.’”

During one memorable period of time, Cole and his dog were attached to 9th Marines, informally known as the “Walking Dead.”

“That was the first time I really witnessed the thousand yard stare. All the 9th Marine guys were positively listless. They’d just gaze off like they were somewhere else all the time. After a few days with them, I worked up the nerve to ask one about it. I asked him why everybody stared off into space like that. The guy looked at me forlornly and said, ‘because every one of us is going to die. It always happens to 9th Marines. They send us someplace and we get brutalized. Every time. None of us is going home again.’”

Sure enough, before long Cole witnessed firsthand the Division’s historically bad luck.

“They were doing an operation on line, and I can’t work my dog when they were like that, so me and this other guy took up rear security and started digging in. Then my buddy got bitten by a scorpion, and he starts sweating and shaking in the hole, completely miserable. I called our Doc over and right as he climbed into the hole, we started getting mortared. We couldn’t all fit in the hole either.

“Doc threw my buddy down into the hole and put his flak vest over him, and then he climbed on top of him to shield him with his body. Trouble is, that didn’t leave enough room for ME in there. All I could do was hunch in the corner and constantly turn a little bit as the rounds ‘walked’ right by us. Once again, I knew that was it.

“You ever felt shrapnel hit your flak? It feels like somebody’s throwing little rocks or something at you – but really hard. My entire upper body was exposed because Doc and the other guy were filling the hole. As the rounds walked by us, I’d rotate to keep them to my back. The whole time, I’m thinking, ‘all I have to do is hold out my arm, get hit by something little, and they’ll send me home,’ but my luck a big chunk would have come by then and taken off my whole damn arm. I just hunched down and watched shrapnel open up Doc’s arm, then my buddy’s leg got opened up. But nothing hit me, though – at least not big pieces. Again, I guess it wasn’t my time.”

Caring for a dog in Vietnam was more complex than one might imagine. Not only did handlers pack their own equipment, but they were required to carry two weeks provisions for the dog, as well as tremendous amounts of water. Cole explained the problem:

“The dog’s brain sits in the top of its cranial cavity – just under the fur and skull. They cook easily, so we’d have to keep them cool. I’d have maybe one canteen for myself, and literally fifteen for the dog. All throughout the day, I’d pour water over his head to keep him from frying. The grunts hated me for it, too. They’d get resupplied and get issued barely half a canteen per Marine, and there I was just pouring water all over my dog just to keep him comfortable. They hated me for it, but I had to do it. The poor animal still passed out once on me, which was awful.

“Other guys weren’t very nice to their dogs, though. Some of the handlers in my group would deliberately feed their dogs a little bit of C4. Of course, the dog would get sick and then the handler would insist that they needed to be relieved. The veterinarians knew about it and hated those guys for it, but they couldn’t ever prove it. It pissed me off, and I never did it. It’s pretty embarrassing to even tell you about it, actually.”

Following his tour through Vietnam as a dog handler, Cole again returned to the states.

“It was the early 70s then, when airplanes were getting hijacked left and right in the Middle East, and the US Marshalls didn’t have enough guys to plant on every flight through the area. So they borrowed a bunch of guys from the military, sent them through Sky Marshals school, and then we’d fly all over the place. The pulled about 800 guys from the entire military, and only about 88 from the Corps. They didn’t call us Air Marshalls though, but Sky Marshalls. I did a couple world tours on flights, and then I got promoted to Staff Sergeant and they sent me back to regular units again.”

Sure enough, with his extensive and recent experience as a dog handler, Cole was assigned as a “coordinator” for a dog handler unit – and shipped back to Vietnam for a third tour.

“Basically what would happen is that the handlers would get sent all over Vietnam, and then I’d just travel around and check up on them, deliver their mail, make sure the dogs had plenty of food, and coordinate their relief to give the dogs some R&R and. They had to come south every three weeks or so for vet checkups and rest. Then they’d send ‘em out again. So I’d just wander around the country trying to keep up with all of them, which was pretty fun. I’d get to bases, and the commanders would insist I stick around an extra day for the USO show or something. ‘Course, then I get back south and my 1st Sergeant would yell at me, but he was going to do that anyway so it really didn’t matter. I had a pretty good time though, just traveling around with special orders that let me fly anywhere.”

After a short tour, abbreviated because he declined to reenlist again, Cole returned to the states for discharge. He’d given the Corps seven years, three tours, and served in a myriad of unusual positions.

“I had a few hard days when I wondered what the hell I was doing, but you know, I loved every minute of it. Every single minute. And I wish I’d stayed in. I had so much fun.”

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw All Rights Reserved


  1. Informative and historical. A+

  2. One generation cometh, another gothe away.
    So it is said. So it must be done. War is forever!