It was an odd sized casket, too small for a man, too big for a child. A flag was draped over it, a smallish one. It was carried by four men in uniform, though it was hard to tell for sure from a distance what uniform it was, or even if they were all men. There wasn’t room for the usual six pallbearers due to the small size of the casket since it would have made for a comical service to have all six jammed together, shoulder-to-shoulder, crowding around an under-sized coffin. So the extra pallbearers were in the ranks of many others in uniform standing beside a small open grave. The officiant wore a robe instead of a uniform and must have said something because there was a long silence, then a burst of laughter.
I had thoughts of what the laughter could be about. Maybe it was one of the soldiers cracking under pressure, maybe it was the way the soldier seen things. Not really a joke or something the officiant said, but a memory of what had transpired to bring them all together. The funny thing was the coffin… Undersized… Too small for a man… Oversized… Too big for a child… What could be in there? Then it hit me… A dog… A service dog… Maybe from Afghanistan, or Iraq.
Yeah, that’s it, a dog… A MWD… Military Working Dog. I had read in the paper months ago that one of those famous dogs had come to live with a family near here. The dog was named Bradley after General Omar Bradley… Brad for short or as he became known ‘Rad. Brad was a typical MWD, a Belgian Malinois bred for the program, and selected for his intelligence. He was crafty enough to routinely get out of his pen at night and go carousing on the base sniffing out treats the soldiers hid for practice the next day. He scored top marks in advanced training and was then put into active duty.
They assigned the nameless dog, who quickly became Bradley, to a soldier named Micheal Baylyn who was just called up from the National Guard and destined to do time in Afganistan. He was a college graduate who had taken Political Sciences as his major and wanted the life of a State Governor. After 9/11, he felt his heartstrings pulled by the loss of Innocent Americans and joined the National Guard. Through the years he trained and never had his ticket called until he had taken on the role of Handler for the MWD program. He wanted to be ready for the next attack and be able to find explosives before the enemy put them to use. In 2008, Micheal and Brad received their orders to deploy to Afghanistan.
During their time in Afghanistan, the dog and handler sniffed out 32 IEDs in one week on routine patrols, cornering 13 snipers over a month, and saving at least 15 soldiers ambushed by hidden Jihadis armed with small arms while trying to evade detection in village sweeps. He helped identify 98 sniper positions in a year and sniffed out 15 in the same year. The list went on for a few more honourable deeds and then the unspeakable… His partner was shot… Fame had taken his life.
The Taliban commanders had put a bounty on his head and hoped for the best with paying it out. They tired of the unstoppable duo finding every well designed and craftily placed IED that they had hidden along the main road just miles out of Kandahar Airbase. They knew of an up-and-coming mission to head into the hills and oust some Jihadis who had been reportedly sighted massing in the area.
Years before while conducting satellite reconnaissance in the area the allied forces had noticed the buildup around certain mountain peaks north of Kandahar in the Hindu Kush mountain range. Through several infiltrations and several resulting skirmishes they determined that this was in fact the enemy stronghold and would have to be directly assaulted at some point if peace talks fell through.
When the time came for Operation Condor to roll out, they selected Brad and Micheal as one of the dog teams to lead with the scouts. Placed in a unit selected to lead in a formation of Strykers was Bradley and Micheal. They were in the lead unit as the upper echelon of Command knew that someone had leaked the plans out to draw in as many Jihadis as possible.
When the formation rolled, Brad’s commander ordered his squad ready for quick deployment to the surroundings to clear IEDs placed in the path of travel. Brad would take point with his dog. When the column reached about 2km from the mountain range shells started to sporadically fall from the enemy position like they were zeroing in their big guns.
As the column continued, the encountered emplacements and the scouts stopped to report via satellite radio. Overrun were each of the assaulted fortifications. As soon as the scouts and dogs deployed they searched the fortifications for booby traps. The scout units approached cautiously and when the dogs reacted the explosive ordinance disposal team, or IEDDs, cleared the fortifications and then the intelligence officers could look for intelligence concerns like laptops, cellphones, papers that could depict troop numbers, maps depicting employments, etc.
During the fourth such stoppage of the column the dogs reacted to nothing and Micheal found a laptop in the bunker. Sniffing clean again, Brad who was in a hurry grabbed the laptop and proceeded out of the bunker without his dog. Suddenly and silently he hit the ground doubled over. Sensing trouble, ‘Rad came running. He was showing signs of distress before the shot was heard and the rest of the squad took cover knowing there was a sniper about.
When the spotters got setup, they scoured the hillside looking for signs of the enemy. A feignt glint gave away what was assumed to be the enemy spotter’s position over what they considered 2800 yards away. An airstrike was briefly considered but then Bradley started off in the direction of the spotted sniper. The squad leader tried to call him back and the dog responded by staying put.
The decision to follow came from a crackling radio and the squad loaded up followed by the rest of the platoon who had yet to disembark from their respective Strykers. Another handler relayed signals to the dog from the point Stryker to proceed and the dog took off towards the nearest hilltop over 2k away. This was were the glint was seen and were he headed the dog to begin with.
As the column followed the dog and they got closer and closer shots rang out from the position. The dog seemed to sense the oncoming shots and would zig and zag to avoid a hit. Unfortunately for the animal, the human was an expert marksman and could predict the pattern of zigs and zags and scored a couple of hits. Because of the dog wearing ballistic armor the body hits were taken in stride. A few flips and a few whines later the dog was up and running again straight for the target. Nothing could stop him.
When the platoon lost sight of the dog in the scrub brush they came to a halt… Until the barking. The reinforced scouts disembarked their fighting vehicles and followed the barking banshee of a dog into the heights. They lost track of him and soon the silence prevailed as they tried desperately to gain his scent from another dog handler’s companion so they could resume following.
Unbeknownst to them ‘Rad had cornered Mustafa the famed sniper in his lair and was ready to engage. He barked a few times directly into the cave and the fire of a side arm rewarded this. ‘Rad ran towards the noise and Mustafa must have thought ‘Rad had a handler with him. Without direction of a handler ‘Rad did what they expected and slunk into the lion’s den intending to subdue his handler’s executioner. Inch. by inch ‘Rad crept closer as silently as he had been trained and surprised Mustafa.
When Mustafa raised his gun arm intending to shoot, ‘Rad lept at the aggressor and tried to first disarm. When a struggle ensued and Mustafa refused to be subdued ‘Rad elevated in force and lethality. When the struggling Jihadi lossened his arm he went for his knife intending to slice his belly open. After a lengthy struggle ‘Rad gave in and went for Mustafa’s throat intending to rip out his jugular. Then and only then did ‘Rad, who felt sufficiently threatened, go for the kill and commit to tearing out Mustafa’s jugular. Mustafa was dead… D-E-A-D.
Incessantly barking at his victory brought swift response from the following soldiers. They quickly swept the cave and secured all the tunnels leading in and out of the main cave. The squad’s medic quickly determined that the blood dripping off of ‘Rad’s muzzle was in fact from the evident throat injury that had been sustained during the apparent struggle. Torn fabric on the Jihadi’s sleeve indicated that ‘Rad had at first tried to subdue and the discarded knife showed that ‘Rad had been threatened before attacking lethaly. There were several stabs evident on ‘Rad’s armor to prove this. Then I snapped back to reality.
I finally figured it out. Me the lowly grounds keeper had almost blown things for the hero of the day… Senility will do that to people… I forget facts… Figures… Dogs had handlers many years ago while Sergeant Micheal Baylyn had life. I slowly approached the mess of a hole I created assuming a human soldier and cried. I mumbbled my appology for screwing up when told another hero was being burried at Arlington. I cried with the soldiers as I told them sorry again for digging such a massive hole that had to be filled in and delaying the process of putting one of their comrades to rest.
The grave wasn’t ready until sunset, so the entire event was rushed and disorganized, except for the very last part. The grave was a massive affair, more of a crater than a grave, and it took until dark to roll the casket down to the bottom. If any prayers were said, they couldn’t be heard over the dull thudding of the clods raining down on the casket far below. It was an odd sized casket, too big for a man, too small for a dream, but just right for a dynasty.