After the suicide bombing, the U.S. Marine dog handler lay on a stretcher, his bloodied legs laced with shrapnel. They brought in his wounded dog, too. Blood dripped from the haunches of the Belgian Malinois.
Seven Afghans died in the insurgent attack on Sept. 8 near a Marine battalion headquarters in southern Afghanistan. Sgt. Kenneth Fischer and his dog, Drak, were flown by helicopter to a bigger base for emergency treatment, then out of the country for surgery. Both will head to Texas for rehabilitation, and eventually, in line with military custom, Fischer will adopt Drak and take him home.
"I have literally spent more time with Drak than I have my own daughter," Fischer, 27, said by telephone earlier this week from his hospital bed at a military medical center in Bethesda, Maryland. The Marine had worked with 4-year-old Drak for two years and spent a total of nine months in Afghanistan. His daughter, Cheyenne, is 19 months old.
Much is made of the bond among men at arms, but the union between man and dog in a combat zone seems just as tight. Handlers and canines that sniff for explosives or narcotics patrol together, day after day, linked by a leash and an innate understanding of each other. Sometimes, they sleep side by side in military cots. They face the same dangers together.
A unit of handlers and dogs operates out of Camp Leatherneck, the main Marine base in southern Afghanistan, home to insurgent strongholds. The teams fan out in Helmand province and beyond, working with Marines and other branches of the U.S. military, as well as Afghan forces and, at times, British troops.
Eight of the 30 handlers have been wounded this year, but Drak was the only dog to be wounded, said Staff Sgt. Morris Earnest, supervisor of the unit, which is part of the III Marine Headquarters Group. Half went home because of the severity of their injuries. Three of those lost limbs to homemade bombs, but their dogs emerged "without a scratch."
Tucked inside the Leatherneck compound, a memorial pays tribute to Marine Cpl. Max William Donahue, a dog handler killed last year, and dogs that have died in attacks or from heat exhaustion and other causes in past years. A simple white cross, erect in a bed of pebbles, lists their names on wooden plaques hanging from the crossbar: Frida, Grief, Murdock, Torry, Chico, Dixie, Patrick, Marko.
"From a few of the finest. To the finest of the few," the memorial reads.
On Aug. 6, 30 American troops and eight Afghans died in a helicopter crash in eastern Afghanistan, and a U.S. military dog on board was also killed.
Dogs serve a small but valued role for the U.S.-led coalition that seeks to quell Taliban groups and transfer security responsibilities to Afghan forces in time for the withdrawal of foreign combat troops by the end of 2014.
Ideally, the dogs, which include labradors and German and Dutch Shepherds, give an edge in unearthing boobytraps laden with explosives or detecting drugs in a region where the Taliban reaps profits from poppy harvests used in opium production. A handler and his dog usually follow behind a sweeper with a metal detector at the front of a single-file patrol.
An Associated Press team at Forward Operating Base Jackson, headquarters for the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, witnessed the early treatment of casualties after the Sept. 8 suicide bombing in the district center of Sangin. While Fischer and other wounded were cared for, a trio of dog handlers tended to Drak, muzzling and hoisting him onto a stretcher before rushing him to a helicopter.
"He should be OK," Fischer said 10 days later by telephone, his voice raspy after having tubes inserted down his throat during treatment. "At first, there was some talk about him losing one of his legs, but not so much anymore. Knowing Drak, he should be fine."
Drak, trained to find narcotics, is being treated at Dog Center Europe, a U.S. military facility in Germany. He will be transferred for more care at Lackland Air Force Base, a training site for military dogs in San Antonio, Texas.
Fischer plans to head there, too. His wife has family there, and he wants to be with Drak, whose name is a variation of Drac, or "devil" in Romanian.
"When he meets people, he can be calm and relaxed," the Marine said. "When we go outside, he's excited and rambunctious and likes to play, and I'm the same way."
What Drak doesn't like is shooting. During gunfire training, he lay down beside Fischer, calm and meek, until it was over. He did the same during a Taliban mortar attack.
"He is a very obedient dog," Fischer said. "He will only listen to me. Somebody else will be around and give him commands and he'll just look at them like they're stupid."
Fischer wants to resume his Marine Corps career. But, he said, Drak can spend his days lying around at Fischer's home at his duty station in Twentynine Palms, California, or playing frisbee, one of the dog's favorite activities. He acknowledged it will be "some time" before they get there because of their injuries.
Sgt. Mark Behl, a dog handler who helped Drak the day he was injured, said it helps to fit a calm handler with a "high drive" dog, or an "excited person with a bored dog."
Placid and amiable, Behl said his dog, a German Shepherd named Fuli, is "a handful."
Dog handling under the stress of danger is a subtle, pinpoint profession. Behl said he knows Fuli so well after two and a half years together that he can tell whether he is sniffing idly, perhaps on the trail of another animal's scent, or has detected something serious, such as the ingredients of crudely made explosives.
"There's a lot more to the job than just holding the leash," said Behl of Cottage Grove, Wisconsin. "I know to keep him moving or to let him work."
At the same time, he must know when to pull Fuli away from a threat, aware of the hidden bombs that have killed or maimed many troops in Afghanistan.
Fuli has a vexing habit during patrols in cornfields of running into adjacent rows of corn and getting his leash tangled around the stalks. But he plays ball with Marines back on base, boosting their morale.
"At the end of the day, the dog is going to come up and lick me in the face," said Behl, who grew up around dogs. "It's a little taste of home, just having an animal."