February 22, 2019

Jeff De Young: The dog who saved my life and came to live with me

fgddszThe day I turned 18 I started Marine Corps boot camp, and 15 months later I went to Afghanistan. It was 2009 and I was absolutely terrified.
You could hear the rounds snap overhead, and then when the round went past you, you heard a zing almost like a whistle
They paired us with the dogs based on our personalities. Cena was a slightly goofy, quiet dog, and I was a slightly goofy, quiet kid, so it made sense for us to be with each other.
Together we were known as Kid and Chicken. Chicken was one of those nicknames that you don’t remember where it came from, it just kinda stuck. And although I was 19 by this stage, I looked like I was about 12, I didn’t even have any facial hair. As a joke, the Marines mailed a permission slip home for my mom to sign because I looked so young they didn’t believe that I was allowed to be over there.
I would operate Cena using hand and arm commands and a whistle. I’d be in front of the patrol and Cena would be further ahead again, so if either of us walked on an improvised explosive device, although we would have been hurt, the rest of the patrol would be safe. I’d never been faced with a situation like that before and it felt like a crash course in adulthood, responsibility, and survival.
Cena had been a champion bird dog. When waterfowl falls from the sky there is no scent trail to follow like there would be with a rabbit or a deer, so the dog has to investigate the area and find the scent on the wind, it’s amazing.
Dog’s noses are so much more powerful than ours. We smell cookies, but they smell the flour, the nutmeg, the butter, the eggs, the milk – they can dissect everything and they can detect smells that we don’t even know exist.
He’d been trained to detect more than 300 different types of explosives and if he smelled something interesting on patrol he would lie down and notify me, and then I’d call in an explosives technician.
We had to trust each other – we would have a dozen, two dozen marines behind us and any mistake could have been fatal.
The battle of Marjah was a turning point in my life. We approached the town before the sun came up, no-one was talking, no-one was joking. It was very tense. You could hear the rounds snap overhead, and then when the round went past you, you heard a zing almost like a whistle.
I was so worried about getting Cena to safety, I even had to lie on top of him to protect him from gunfire. Another time I carried him through a freezing cold, flooded river on my shoulders like a hunter would a deer.
It got so cold in the fighting holes that even Cena’s body heat didn’t help, so one day I offered an Afghan soldier the entire contents of my wallet for his scratchy, olive, drab wool army blanket. I had $100 (£80) in my wallet. I was either going to burn the money or get the blanket, that’s how cold I was. I still have that blanket.
The first week inside Marjah I lost a couple of very good friends. One of them was a former room-mate I’d trained with, Lance Corporal Alejandro Yazzie. He was 23, a Navajo, and an all-round good guy. His grandfather had been a wind talker [code talker] in World War Two. When I found out it was Yazzie I was devastated. I held on to Cena and cried into him.Yazzie was the first of seven friends I lost in Afghanistan. I carried a flag inside my helmet and whenever a friend would pass away I’d add their name to it.
Eventually I just couldn’t cope any more. I grabbed my military rifle and went to the latrine area. I remember sitting there trying to prepare my mind and make peace, and then Cena peeked around the corner. His ears went up like in the cartoons and he opened his mouth like he was smiling. His tail started spinning so hard that his whole body was rocking back and forth like he was excited by a piece of bacon.
I started laughing, and I laughed so much that I just broke down crying. I realised then that I couldn’t leave Cena because I didn’t know if his next handler would love him the way I did. He really was the only person in my life that I had a deep relationship with at that time. I left the latrine, put my rifle back and focused on work.

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