11/30/09 — Courage in the face of teeth

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Courage in the face of teeth

By Laura Collins
Published in News on November 30, 2009 1:46 PM

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Reporter Laura Collins experiences the bite-and-hold technique used by K-9 Robby and other military working dogs at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. The dogs "attack" at the command of their handler -- and release when directed to do so.

The Job: Security Forces

The Company: United State Air Force

The Location: Seymour Johnson Air Force Base

It used to be, when I heard the name "Robby" I thought of a small boy -- maybe 5 or 6 years old -- who hasn't yet grown into the name "Robert."

But now when I hear Robby, I think of teeth. Millions and millions of teeth. All of them coming at my arm.

Robby is a military working dog and part of the K-9 unit at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. He and the other dogs are trained to detect explosives and narcotics.

Additionally, Robby is a patrol dog and is trained to bite and hold with or without command. This part I got to experience firsthand.

Initially, I wasn't too nervous about meeting the dogs. That only lasted until Staff Sgt. William Bailey gave me a tour of the kennel. Before we walked in, Bailey stopped and said:

"Don't stick your fingers in the cages."

I quickly responded with nervous laughter.

"Seriously, you don't want to lose a finger."

At this point, nervousness was replaced with sheer terror.

I slowly walked into the kennel, which was one long hallway lined with cages. At first sight of me, the dogs went ballistic. The sound of barking was near deafening as the dogs repeatedly jumped against the cage walls. I'd never been so disliked in my life. At one point, I think Bailey noticed my discomfort and tried to make me feel better.

"That one's Bertha. She looks mean, but she's really a sweetheart," he said.

"You're insane."

From there we went outside, where Bailey, Tech. Sgt. Nathan Nash and Staff Sgt. David Tagliaferro showed me the extent of Robby's capabilities. His training and self-control are remarkable. Not once did he act without a command from his handler, Bailey, nor did he ever linger too long after he was called off a bite and hold. Each dog only has one handler, and like any other relationship it takes time to build trust between the two. But once it is there, it is seemingly unbreakable.

The dogs are deployed along with their handlers, and are heroes in their own right, searching out and detecting explosive devices. Similarly, the K-9s are also susceptible to post traumatic stress disorder, which is the thought that kept replaying in my head as I put on the protective jacket, preparing to let Robby practice his bite and hold command on me.

After all was said and done, it wasn't as bad as I thought, and turned out to be quite an adrenaline rush. However, it has also deterred me from ever wanting to commit any kind of crime with a military working dog nearby.

After spending time with the military working dog handlers, I left to go learn more about another part of the security forces detail, combat arms instructors.

I met instructors Staff Sgt. Jonathan Black, Staff Sgt. Lee Gebhart and Staff Sgt. Devin Starling at the shooting range. They had five guns set up to show me: two machine guns -- an M-240 and an M-249 -- an M-870 shotgun, an M-4 carbine and an M-9 pistol.

"This is what gives us a smile on our face every day," Black said after giving me the rundown of each weapon.

Next it was my turn to fire them. I was pumped. I've been a card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association since June. While I support gun rights, I have never actually fired anything stronger than a paintball gun. Once. In eighth grade. So I was in for a surprise when I fired the pistol for the first time. The recoil unnerved me.

"OK, I think I'm done with the shooting exercise," I said.

"But you only tried one of them," Black said.

"Yep, and I think that cured me of wanting to shoot the other ones."

The recoil scared me because I felt like I didn't have control of the gun. But then I looked down the line at the machine guns and visions of Rambo danced in my head.

"OK, maybe I'll try the smaller machine gun."

"So the pistol makes you nervous, but the machine gun you're fine with?" Black asked.

"I think so."

It was the best decision I ever made. I fired about 150 rounds out of each machine gun and loved it. Being combat arms instructors, Gebhart said it's rewarding seeing people go from being intimidated by the weapons to being fully comfortable using them if they would need to.

What the airmen learn in the combat arms classes could very well save their lives in the future.

"The best part about this job is making sure they have the knowledge to get them back home safely," Black said.

And that really is what was most-evident during my time as an honorary member of the Security Forces Squadron at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

There were an awful lot of people there working hard to make sure that their comrades -- and their country -- are safe every day.

And that is a mission that cannot be taken lightly -- and a responsibility these airmen carry with honor.