It’s 7 a. m., just north of the town of Safar, Afghanistan, and Fenji M675 is already panting. Her thick, black German shepherd coat glistens in the hot August sun. Fenji is out in front of ten marines, leashed to a D-ring that’s attached to the body armor of her handler, Corporal Max Donahue. He’s six feet behind her and holds his rifle ready.
Fenji leads the marines down the flat dirt road, past the trees and lush vegetation in this oasis amid the deserts of southern Afghanistan. She ignores the usual temptations: a pile of dung, a wrapper from a candy bar. Her mission doesn’t include these perks. Her nose is what may keep them all alive today, and she can’t distract it with the trivial. Coalition forces have been sweeping Safar of insurgents and their bombs, allowing the Safar Bazaar marketplace to reopen and locals to start living normally again. The Taliban had to go somewhere else. So they headed north. And they planted improvised explosive devices (IEDs) like seedlings among the poppy fields and grape fields and off to the sides of roads, under thick weeds.
Around here, any step you take could be your last.
And that’s why Fenji is in the lead, walking point. IEDs are the top killer in Afghanistan— even with the highest technology, the best mine- sweeping devices, the most sophisticated bomb- jamming equipment, and the study of “pattern of life” activities being observed from remote piloted aircraft. But there is one response that the Taliban has no answer for: the soldier dog, with his most basic sense— smell— and his deepest desire— some praise, and a toy to chew.
“Seek!” Donahue tells Fenji, and they continue down the road, leading the men from the 3/ 1 (Third Battalion First Marines). She walks with a bounce to her step, tail up and bobbing gently as she half trots down the road. Every so often she stops and sniffs a spot of interest and, when she doesn’t find what she’s seeking, moves on. She almost looks like a dog out on a morning stroll in a park. Donahue, in full combat gear— some eighty pounds of it, including water for his dog— keeps up with her.
Fenji stops at a spot just a foot off the side of the road. She’s found something of great interest. Without taking her eyes off the spot, she sniffs around it swiftly and her tail starts to wag. Suddenly she goes from standing up to lying down, staring the entire time at the spot. The men have stopped walking and are watching her. Her wagging tail kicks up some dust. Everything is silent now. No more sniffing, no crunching of boots.
Suddenly a hushed, enthusiastic voice cuts through the dead quiet. “Fenjiii! That’s my girl!”
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