Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Chocolat The Army Hero

New type of search dog finds a ‘sweet’ surprise in Helmand
Thirteen men and a dog called Chocolat!

The old market place was deserted. The soldiers knew that something was wrong because the local Afghan traders had abandoned it to set up another small bazaar further down the road. Last month, as part of Operation Moshtarak, a full search team was sent in to clear and make the area safe. Known only as Yellow 2 in the Nad e Ali region of Helmand it looked more like a scene from a spaghetti western, minus the tumbleweed, when the troops walked in.

Enter stage right: Chocolat, a beautiful Belgian Shepherd, and his handler Private Steve Purdy (20) from the Royal Army Veterinary Corps. Chocolat is a new type of search dog referred to as High Assurance Search (HAS) and his role is to find lethal Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) buried under the ground. He works exclusively with the brave specialists of the Counter IED Task Force based in Camp Bastion. At Yellow 2 he was searching through the deserted bazaar when he suddenly darted into an open shop front.

“He totally right angled, went in, and wouldn’t come back. Normally he’d never go out of my sight! That’s how sure I was. Enough for me to pull him back and say that there was something there” said Private Purdy.

The ‘something’ was a huge cache from a bomb making factory located in a row of simple, single story mud rooms. There were home made explosives, old claymore mines and all the equipment in place required to make over 10 IEDs set up as a production line. Private Purdy described the whole place as feeling ‘sinister’ in a classic understatement of the reality of the situation common to CIED operators. The team were aware that it was a key point in the area where the Afghan National Police had only recently torn down the white Taliban flag flying above the local bazaar. Throughout the morning several more equipment and IED finds were discovered in the deserted market. It had been left as a death trap for civilians and soldiers alike.

As the specialists continued moving down the row of baked mud rooms, some with corrugated iron doorways that had to be blown in, another big device was identified inside an open lean-to. As the bomb disposal expert moved forward he sensed that he was being ‘channelled’, that it was a lure or ‘come on’. He paused, assessing the situation, and then Chocolat was sent around to clear a route to the rear of the buildings. The team blew a hole through a compacted mud wall at the back and sure enough the area at the front had been arranged to try and catch out ISAF troops.

Chocolat’s reward that day was some praise from his handler and a slightly bigger dinner that night, but for him that is incentive enough to try and find as many devices as he can every time he goes out on the ground. His success at finding IEDs in the initial few weeks of Operation Moshtarak was impressive and the troops value what this new search capability provides. It is helping to save the lives of some key players in the dangerous world of CIED.

Steve Purdy is justly proud of the dog he personally trained.

“Chocolat is special, partly because he’s the first dog I’ve trained. He is very cheeky but a really good dog, really good at his job. He’s also a character. He tends to wake me up a lot in the night with his toy wanting to play, or he’ll destroy something that’s close by like my flip flops! But his most annoying trait, especially when it got very cold at the start of Moshtarak, is to try and get into my sleeping bag. He’s a big dog, so it’s just not happening! I got him his own coat to keep him warm … and out of my sleeping bag.”

Steve Purdy knew that he wanted to be a dog handler when he walked into his local Armed Forces Careers Office in Colchester 2007. He joined the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, completed his training and was posted to 101 Military Working Dogs Unit Aldershot. This is his second tour in Afghanistan. On his first tour he worked with protection dogs but when a request was put out early last year for volunteers to train the new HAS dogs Steve jumped at the chance.

Sadly the partnership will not last forever. Steve Purdy will be posted soon and knows that he will have to hand Chocolat over to another handler. It is emotional for him but he is also pragmatic about life as a military dog handler.

“We work in a high risk environment. Chocolat was my dog right from the start. He literally didn’t know how to sit when I got him. Unfortunately I’ll have to hand him over to somebody else. I’m not looking forward to it but its part of the job. I know how good he is and he will be just as good for somebody else as he has been for me.”

1 comment:

  1. These teams are doing a wonderful and highly dangerous job out in Afghanistan but why the name change? In N Ireland during OP Banner the dogs, employed by the Army & RAFP, doing much the same job were known as Armament & Explosives Search (AES) dogs..... What is the difference...?