Honza: IED Detection Bear
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"Brothers, sisters, wives… [went] home because Honza found [those] IEDs."
Saving lives with a happy demeanor and a never quit attitude
Military Working Dogs (MWDs) represent the first line of defense for military and civilian operations, seeking the specific compounds composing explosives, according to Cindy Elkind, Founder of Kevlar for K9s, a nonprofit organization devoted to providing MWDs and domestic law enforcement dogs with protective Kevlar vests. Tshe partnership between the MWD and his/her handler is invaluable in saving numerous lives. MWDs not only offer unconditional love and loyalty, but exhibit consummate bravery in the line of duty. The story of then-Army Specialist John Nolan and Specialized Search Dog (SSD) Honza is the most memorable for Elkind, where she contacted now-Sergeant Nolan to donate a vest to SSD Honza.
As Kevin Hanrahan, an Army Veteran with experiences as a company commander in Iraq, and the Deputy Provost Marshal for US forces in Afghanistan, accounts in his blog, fate was around the corner in the form of a "big, goofy Labrador," named Honza for Sergeant John Nolan, when he was partnered with SSD Honza (who had four previous partners before Sergeant Nolan). Sergeant Nolan accounts, SSD Honza was born in 2006, where the Army acquired him from Germany in late 2006-early 2007. Hanrahan continues, Sergeant Nolan had wondered what was wrong with SSD Honza, and soon discovered, SSD Honza was slow, taking three times as long to complete the training exercise than the other dogs. Sergeant Nolan watched SSD Honza, who "looked like an unwieldy bear, poking around for snacks at a campsite' look[ing] at a passing butterfly and then tak[ing] a few more steps with his nose down' He was Honza the Bear!"
SSD Honza didn't click with any partner until Sergeant Nolan. As Sergeant Nolan accounts, "[Honza] chose me' he decided I was going to be his handler." The SSD class at Lackland Air Force Base, located in Texas, is designed where each handler works with two dogs, and chooses one. The other students each had two dogs to focus on, while Sergeant Nolan only had SSD Honza (getting paired with a second dog towards the end of training), having twice as much time to work with him. That additional time gave the pair the opportunity to develop a close, strong bond, as Sergeant Nolan broke the cardinal rule of becoming a MWD handler: getting close with his MWD partner, seeing SSD Honza as his companion more than a working dog. SSD Honza became Sergeant Nolan's "buddy right from the start," seeing SSD Honza as "more of a son or brother, than a working dog."
Hanrahan continues, Sergeant Nolan's senior instructor took notice of the extra time Sergeant Nolan spent in training with SSD Honza, "'I've never seen [Honza] work this well with anyone else. Heck, I've never seen him work this well, period." Sergeant Nolan responded, "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." As his instructor walked away, Sergeant Nolan knelt down to give SSD Honza belly rub, who began making "grumbling noises that sounded like a bear." To Sergeant Nolan, SSD Honza taught him more than the instructors (as he had gone through the training before), and came out of his shell while working with Sergeant Nolan. SSD Honza "taught me so much, I couldn't go with another dog after that," building a bond with SSD Honza, as he started to understand what Sergeant Nolan wanted.
As Hanrahan continues, Sergeant Nolan and SSD Honza were preparing for deployment; however, SSD Honza had failed certification, which is required for a dog team to deploy; the explosives detection team must certify at 95 percent proficiency or they cannot work as a team. Sergeant Nolan had a heart-to-heart with SSD Honza: "You know I need you. I take care of you and you take care of me. That is how this works' We need to pass certification so we can go to Afghanistan and protect our troops."
On the day of the trials, the team easily passes through, with certification in sight' until the last trial. Honza had moved too quickly during the building search, running past the explosive training aids; he missed everything. Sergeant Nolan was facing the possibility of losing SSD Honza as his partner, but 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.
Sergeant Nolan kneels down to SSD Honza, "This is it buddy. I need you, pal. I can't lose you." Honza looks back, smiling at him. SSD 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. Sergeant Nolan hesitates'
"Good job, Nolan. Good luck in Afghanistan," congratulates his Master Sergeant.
Sergeant Nolan accounts, during his 12 months in Afghanistan in December of 2011 through December of 2012, SSD Honza shared the same room as Sergeant Nolan, sleeping in the same bed. SSD Honza's life was structured: when he woke up, Sergeant Nolan would feed him breakfast two hours prior to the time he would be sent out on searches, as Sergeant Nolan would know the night before what time he and SSD Honza would begin their mission (making sure SSD Honza's stomach was settled before going to work). SSD Honza would lay down and relax, until he saw Sergeant Nolan getting dressed with his gear, preparing for the day, signaling to SSD Honza it was time to get ready for work as well. Sergeant Nolan would put SSD Honza's harness and vest on; it would be time to go. After a full day of searches and what the mission for the day entailed, they would return and SSD Honza would lay down after walking four to eight hours. After a nap, SSD Honza would eat dinner, have a little play time with Sergeant Nolan, and do it all over again the next day. No matter where they were, SSD Honza was always with Sergeant Nolan.
Sergeant Nolan fondly recalls, "This is something they still make fun of me about;" before every search, Sergeant Nolan and SSD Honza begin with tradition: Sergeant Nolan would bend down on the left side, rub SSD Honza's belly, and ask if he was ready to go. Sergeant Nolan would lift his left hand, as SSD Honza would lift his paw to give Sergeant Nolan a high-five, signaling he was ready. Although SSD Honza is trained to search off-leash, Sergeant Nolan had SSD Honza search on-leash in Afghanistan, as he didn't know what to expect and didn't want SSD Honza to be too far away from him. SSD Honza would do his search, searching particular areas; then Sergeant Nolan would step in with Honza, choosing areas which looked suspicious.
In his career, SSD Honza has found 14 improvised explosive devices (IEDs), saving Sergeant Nolan and his entire company; Sergeant Nolan credits SSD Honza in saving his life, at least 14 times. Sergeant Nolan recalls one "big save," in Afghanistan, when the ground had been covered by snow. Sergeant Nolan was notified of a possible IED and took SSD Honza out to search for it. In this rare instance, SSD Honza did his search off-leash, as there was a high risk of stepping on an IED, well-concealed underneath the blanket of snow. SSD Honza went down into the dry river bed, covered in snow, and began "acting weird" to anyone else; however, Sergeant Nolan recognized SSD Honza's change in behavior, he had discovered something.
Sergeant Nolan alerted his team, and carefully walked down to the dry river bed to direct SSD Honza to pinpoint the IED. SSD Honza kept running in front, and behind Sergeant Nolan, and was soon getting frustrated and upset; SSD Honza could smell the IED, he just couldn't find it. Eventually, SSD Honza sat down two to three feet in front of Sergeant Nolan. Sergeant Nolan stepped forward, and as SSD Honza's tail was wagging, he uncovered the detonator hidden beneath the snow. If SSD Honza had not been there, wagging his tail, Sergeant Nolan would have stepped on the IED.
Sergeant Nolan credits SSD Honza for every IED that was found. "I never found any IEDs, Honza found them'" making sure Sergeant Nolan and his team stayed safe, only crediting himself in giving SSD Honza a treat or a toy after accomplishing his task. Sergeant Nolan received a Bronze star, his end of deployment award for the amount of IEDs that were found; Sergeant Nolan ripped it off his chest and placed it on SSD Honza. Unfortunately, very few MWDs are awarded service medals, where Sergeant Nolan wanted SSD Honza to know he recognized him and everything he has done. SSD Honza was at the awards ceremony, but could not be a part of the formation with Sergeant Nolan, only watching Sergeant Nolan and "taking care of me where he was." Immediately after the ceremony, Sergeant Nolan pinned the Bronze star onto SSD Honza's collar, as "he was the one who earned it." SSD Honza also holds numerous Challenge Coins, given to him by unit commanders for assisting in searches both domestically and overseas. Challenge Coins are traditionally given to honor, encourage, and reward individuals for their accomplishments, among the branches of the military.
After a successful career as a MWD, finding numerous IEDS, and saving innumerable amount of lives, SSD Honza is now living a relaxing life as a canine Veteran, with his buddy and new dad, Sergeant Nolan. SSD Honza was declared "excess," terminology used by the US Army to signify a MWD is no longer needed, and essentially, retired. Whether fate, or the perfect timing, Sergeant Nolan was able to adopt SDD Honza. Since SSD Honza is a specialized search dog, who has only ever worked with Sergeant Nolan, by the time SSD Honza would have been retrained with a new handler, SSD Honza would be approximately ten-years-old, where he would likely be retired shortly after. "Luckily, I got him while he's still young and has good years left." Sergeant Nolan drove to Fort Eustis in Virginia, signed the final adoption paperwork with the Judge Advocate General (JAG) offices, as SSD Honza "hopped in the van and I drove him home." SSD Honza began his new life as a distinguished canine Veteran and well-loved family member on February 28, 2014.
Life at home is slower paced. SSD Honza wakes up in the morning, and eats his breakfast. SSD Honza's days consist of naps, and play time with his two new four-legged companions whom he can run around with, before it's time for dinner. With a laugh, Sergeant Nolan notes, SSD Honza naps more and spends lots of time on the couch. Sergeant Nolan's daughter is "enamored with Honza," as he gets used to running around with a little person! Although SSD Honza is relaxing in retirement, Sergeant Nolan is planning on certifying SSD Honza as a therapy dog, perhaps taking him to hospitals, with the hope of "spread[ing] some of [SSD Honza's] joy, since he's a happy puppy." To Sergeant Nolan, SSD Honza "does not have a mean bone in his body," referencing the classic Bugs Bunny cartoons. Sergeant Nolan fondly recalls a big monster, a "red ball of fur," who constantly picks up Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck, wanting to hug, love, and play with them all day, "that's Honza."
SSD Honza is running in the American Humane Association's (AHA) 2014 Hero Dog Awards, in the Military Dog category. According to the AHA, the AHA Hero Dog Awards were created in 2010 as a celebration of America's hero dogs, demonstrating their unconditional bond to humans, whether on the battlefield (like SSD Honza), or offering therapeutic support. To Sergeant Nolan, SSD Honza is already hero; the importance for Sergeant Nolan is to share SSD Honza's story and all the amazing work he has done. Regardless of the results of the Hero Dog Awards, Sergeant Nolan remains proud of SSD Honza, hoping people will learn more about the invaluable work SSD Honza, and all MWDs do, as they are "really saving lives."
The voting link will be posted on SSD Honza's Facebook page. As AHA stipulates, first round voting begins March 7, 2014 at 12:00 PM Eastern time (EST), where people can vote once every 24 hours each day until June 6, 2014 (12:00 PM EST); second round voting will begin June 13, 2014 at 12:00 PM EST and close June 30, 2014 (12:00 PM EST).
Click here to vote for SSD Honza!
Balancing his "goofy" side, SSD Honza's focus has saved countless lives in finding 14 IEDs, where consequently, over 400 pounds of explosives were destroyed; 400 pounds of explosives never used against American lives. Sergeant Nolan accounts, every IED can demolish one truck, where three to six people can occupy each truck. "Brothers, sisters, wives, husbands, mothers' got to go home because Honza found [those] IEDs." It is immeasurable how many lives were saved not only by SSD Honza, but by all military working dogs. As SSD Honza's biography on the AHA nomination page astutely describes, "SSD Honza is a true American hero both at home and abroad. With his happy demeanor and never quit attitude' sav[ing] more lives than can be counted'"
"A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles."'Christopher Reeve, American Actor, Screenwriter, and Activist (1952-2004)
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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...)