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The importance of vesting our canine heroes.
Protecting those who protect us
With these words, Specialist John Nolan's fate was sealed when he was partnered with Honza Bear, a yellow Labrador, and Specialized Search Dog (SSD). The story of Specialist John Nolan and Honza Bear is the most memorable for Cindy Elkind, the woman behind the nonprofit, Kevlar for K9s, when she read the blog written by Kevin Hanrahan, an Army veteran of 20 years service, with experiences as a company commander in Iraq, and the Deputy Provost Marshal for US forces in Afghanistan. Honza's story touched Elkind, where she contacted Specialist Nolan to donate a vest to Honza, in which he "graciously accepted."
Author of the novel, Paws on the Ground, and dog advocate, Hanrahan details how Honza had already been partnered with four other SSD students before Nolan. Honza was slow and had taken three times as long to complete the training exercise than the other dogs; the prospect of Nolan being partnered with another dog was imminent. However, Nolan fell in love with Honza and was determined to keep Honza as his permanent partner, spending his free time running additional exercises with Honza. Nolan's senior instructor took notice, "'I've never seen [Honza] work this well with anyone else'"
"He just gets me Sergeant. And I get him. He may be slow, but he is thorough. I'm okay with him being thorough when we are searching for things that could blow us up." Although it finally clicked for Honza, he still faced one more battle: certification. Nolan was scheduled for deployment with a Special Forces Unit, where certification is required for a dog team to deploy; "an explosive team must certify at 95% proficiency or they aren't allowed to work as a team." The team had already failed once.
On the day of the trials, the team easily passes through, with certification in sight' until the last trial. Honza had moved so quickly during the building search, running past the explosive training aids, he missed everything. Nolan was facing the possibility of losing Honza' until he received one last reprieve. Master Sergeant Hathaway acknowledged how "solid" the team was all week, giving them one last chance to successfully navigate the trial.
Nolan kneels down to Honza, "This is it buddy. I need you, pal. I can't lose you." Honza looks back, smiling at him. Honza is given the command to seek, and sprints; at the end of the hall, he sniffs the bottom of the door seam, and sits, indicating he has found something. Nolan hesitates, knowing that this was pass or fail, right there'
"Good job, Nolan. Good luck in Afghanistan," congratulates his Master Sergeant. Since then, Honza has saved Nolan twice, seeking out explosives, as well as saving the entire company, according to Cindy Elkind.
Military Working Dogs (MWDs) represent the first line of defense for military and civilian operations as the explosives detection "first responders," seeking and finding the specific compounds composing explosives. It is for this reason Cindy Elkind developed Kevlar for K9s; whenever the handlers' lives are in danger, so are the lives of their canine partners. Coupled with a business background and 25 years of dedication to volunteering for animal shelters and rescue groups, Elkind created the 100% volunteer-based organization devoted to "protecting those who protect us," the courageous and self-less canines who dedicate their lives in protecting us.
To Elkind, MWDs are highly valued assets to the military, skilled in identifying specific scents. There are nine identifiable substances that canines are trained to detect, but that constantly changes, as the materials used to make bombs are constantly changing; terrorists are also using strong scents, such as peppermint, to mask the scent of the explosive. Therefore, dogs are trained to detect human scents; when the dog finds the human scent, even from underground, the dog usually finds the bomb. The investment into training valued partners of our military is colossal ($25-30,000 each dog), as they not only offer unconditional love and loyalty, but exhibit consummate "bravery in the line of duty' never hold[ing] grudges and never ask[ing] for rewards."
The primary danger for working canines is bullets and knives. The Kevlar? vests protect the body, and most importantly, vital organs, from dangerous shrapnel from improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Elkind realized the necessity of Kevlar? vests when she became friends with the Kennel Master of Buckley Air Force Base (Aurora, Colorado), whom she met through her daughter, enlisted in the Air Force. The Kennel Master invited Elkind to Buckley AFB to tour the kennels, where she began wondering, why aren't all of these canines who were to be deployed, vested? Two of the Kennel Master's canines were to be deployed, where they were the first dogs Elkind vested. Soon, she began sending vests to Germany (where troops were often deployed to the Middle East from there), and receiving requests from civilian contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Elkind has learned how serious, and how seriously the MWDs take their jobs. For this reason, she requests that the vest she donates stays with the dog, or the kennel. Many times, a MWD will return from deployment and rest for six months, as another MWD will be the relief; she wants to ensure the deployed dog will be protected. Elkind comments, "Typically these dogs are not what I would call 'overtly friendly,'" as they may go through numerous handlers in their careers; the stress level from their jobs also attribute to their unsocial behavior. MWDs do not have the same life as their sheriff canine counterparts, as the sheriff canines usually have a family to go home to.
Elkind works with the International Body Armor Corporation, trusting in their 20-year expertise. The company also puts money back into research and development to make better, lighter vests; a current goal is in developing a vest which includes an effective cooling system. Elkind always advises the handlers to take the vests while on patrol, but do not have the MWDs wear and stand with the vest the entire time, resulting in heat exhaustion from carrying a heavy load. Although the vests may weigh less than five pounds, it still weighs on their bodies.
Purchased from DuPont', the Kevlar? material is composed of aramid fiber, which is woven, ballistic nylon. According to the International Body Armor's K-9 Specialist, Tony Fortier, the K-9 One Vest comes in three versions: the Standard Level II, the Level II Stab-Resistant/Ballistic Combination, and the Level IIIA. Fortier continues, the NIJ (National Institute of Justice) Standard Level II is what most police officers wear and recommended for domestic law enforcement dogs; the Level IIIA vest consists of the same material as the Standard Level II, with 20-30% additional layering (10-12 layers), appropriate for tactical and the military, protecting MWDs against the fragmentation from IEDs.
Elkind purchases the Level IIIA for the MWDs; for the police/sheriff dogs, Level II Stab-Resistant/Ballistic Combination vest is more appropriate, as the vest is lighter, utilizing the Kevlar? Correctional' material, which has the lightest thread by weight with the most weave per square inch, with ballistic features. As described by DuPont', "the fibers help prevent passage through the body armor by dissipating the energy and restricting the instrument [sharp objects] from pushing the fibers apart."
Any military handler can receive a vest; the handler begins by requesting a vest donation via email to the Kevlar for K9s website, then filling out the "Request a Vest" form. The vest is shipped to Elkind, who then ships it to the handler, who provides an APO/AE mailing address; the vest can take up to 3-4 weeks to reach the MWD. However, there is a wait list, as vest donations are dependent upon the funding Elkind has at the time; Kevlar for K9s relies exclusively upon public donations, and Elkind's own funds. 100% of donations go towards purchasing the vests. Each Kevlar? vest costs between $600-800.
Since 2007, Elkind has vested 23 MWDs and 137 domestic police/sheriff and Homeland Security canines. Thus far of 2013, she was only able to vest 1 MWD and 27 police/sheriff canines, due to funding.
Elkind comments, "I would love to see it made mandatory for all working K9s to be vested." An unfortunate economic truth is that providing adequate protection for working canines is a "challenge for cash-strapped law enforcement agencies and military organizations," despite the mammoth investment in the training (time, money, emotional investment) of the working dogs. Fortier concurs, "Lots of dogs need to be vested, especially those in rural areas [who don't have the] budget for protecting these dogs'" The most important thing is to get the dogs protected. However, Elkind remains hopeful as a goal of the military is to ensure all the MWDs are vested when they are deployed, facing harm each day. Here, she steps in, urging people to organize fundraisers, enabling Kevlar for K9s to vest more MWDs and domestic working dogs. Simply, Elkind cannot do her job without the funds.
Donating vests to MWDs has been extremely rewarding for Elkind. Although she has met only 1% of the domestic dogs, and will probably never meet any of the handlers or the MWDs, "it is okay," as she was able to connect and become friends with amazing people, such as Sergeant 1st Class Charles "Chuck" Shuck, who was one of the few handlers able to work with the same dog on every deployment, Gabe; Gabe was named the American Hero Dog of 2012, sponsored by the American Humane Association. Elkind had sent vests to Sergeant Shuck when he was in the States, handing out vests to the soldiers he knew were going on deployment with their MWDs. Elkind never accepts money from the handlers themselves in return for the vests; the only thing she will accept, a photograph. Not only was she able to connect with MWD handlers, she connected with people passionate about this cause, including Susie Jean.
Susie Jean runs the nonprofit, Vest 'N PDP, dedicated to providing police dogs with bulletproof and stabproof vests, also approaching the New Mexico legislature to pass a bill so that the law enforcement protection fund included protective vests be provided to all working canines. Many times, Elkind and Jean help each other, if either has extra funds. Elkind considers Jean a friend, although they have never met; to Elkind, meeting someone in person isn't a requisite for that person to be your friend, or to touch your life. Elkind sends vests all over the world, where the MWD handlers are extremely grateful, sending photographs.
Elkind offers a final thought: "If you are an animal lover at heart and know the importance of working K9s, give generously to an organization that donates Kevlar? vests to these courageous, all-giving members of our society' You can make a difference in the life or death of a K9. It's really that simple and that important."
Until the military is able to outfit every MWD with vests, it is imperative for MWDs to be protected through public generosity. Elkind encourages people to donate, no matter the amount, as every bit of it counts. Fundraising is a great way to help fund the vesting of working dogs, whether MWDs or those working within your own community; Elkind will provide documents, including a letterhead, required to organize a fundraiser for Kevlar for K9s. Elkind also suggests, people can request a specific dog they would like to vest, such as a police dog within your community; all you have to provide is the name of the dog and the handler's information.
Dogs give 100% without asking for anything in return. As the partners of our military, MWDs deserve appropriate protection against harmful weapons and shrapnel, the same harmful things that render our service-people vulnerable. Together, we can all help in "protecting those who protect us."
For more information on, or to donate to, Kevlar for K9s, visit: www.kevlarfork9s.org
To read more on the stories of military working dogs, visit www.khanrahan.com
Louisa Lew, Contributing Writer: Louisa Lew graduated from the University of Washington with a Bachelor’s Degree in the Liberal Arts, double majoring in Political Science and Film. She is currently a Freelance Copy Editor and Writer, living in Seattle with her two dogs. (more...)