By Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jeffry Willadsen
EVERETT, Wash. (NNS) – There are many unique career opportunities in the Navy, including diver, fighter pilot, and Navy SEAL. There is one job, however, that doesn’t immediately come to mind when thinking of the Navy- a dog handler. This is the profession of Master-at-Arms 1st Class (IDW) Fabian Salazar, native of El Paso, Texas and a military working dog handler assigned to Naval Station Everett (NSE).
In 2011, Salazar volunteered for an Individual Augmentee (IA) deployment to Afghanistan. He was sent, with his military working dog, to an Army infantry unit in the Kandahar Province. During this fateful deployment, Salazar and his dog went on many missions and saved many lives, earning a prestigious award and a combat promotion along the way. Salazar also built a long-lasting bond of trust with his canine partner. However, this Sailor’s story is also about the highs and lows of combat, and how this unforgiving environment affected both him and his dog.
“As dog handlers, we go ahead of the infantry, look for IEDs and clear a safe path,” said Salazar. “Whether we’re going into compounds, or just road clearing, we’re there to make sure that the guy behind us gets home safely.”
Explosive detection in front of his unit was Salazar’s primary job while in Afghanistan. If his dog sniffed out an IED, he would alert Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) to investigate. From there, EOD would either disable the device or the unit would find an alternate route.
According to Salazar, dogs have other useful qualities aside from their incredible sensory perception.
“They have that natural bond with a human. It’s a perfect team,” said Salazar. “They have an innate loyalty that most other animals don’t have.”
He credits Max, the dog that Salazar took with him to Afghanistan, with saving many lives.
“In the end, the dogs don’t know what they do for us and how important it is. All they’re working for is like a little toy, love and affection. They never know that they’re actually saving lives.”
Max, a German shepherd/Belgian Malinois mix, was 3 years old when he first came into Salazar’s life. He was serving as a dog handler at NSE’s military working dog kennel when Max was added as a new dog. Salazar soon became Max’s handler. In September of 2011, less than a month later, he volunteered for an IA deployment to Afghanistan.
“We didn’t have a lot of time, so we had to hurry up our bond. This is less than ideal, because you’re going to be asking a lot of a dog that doesn’t know you,” said Salazar. “We didn’t have the time we needed to build that strong, trusting relationship before we deployed, so we had to do it in Afghanistan.”
Normally, dog handlers have a much longer time to build a trusting relationship with a new canine partner.
“Being able to trust your dog is incredibly important. You have to know his limitations, his capabilities and his strengths,” said Salazar. “You’re there to save lives, and if you can’t trust your dog, the units you are protecting won’t be able to trust you.”
After about a month in Afghanistan, Max and Salazar’s bond began to take shape. Especially after grueling overnight and multi-day missions in hostile territory, Salazar began to trust Max completely, and felt that the dog trusted him as well.
“At first it was a little difficult working together. But that changed pretty quick,” said Salazar. “As time went on, it was just me and him out on missions together, and we had to rely on each other. We built a very strong bond of trust and respect.”
This trust between dog and handler would serve the partners well in the tough times ahead.
As his deployment continued, Salazar volunteered for several dangerous missions into volatile regions of Afghanistan. He recalled several instances that he would never forget.
“The first time we took contact from the enemy always stood out in my mind,” said Salazar. “Max didn’t panic, we didn’t panic. We just hunkered down and waited for the all clear. I’ll always remember that day.”
This incident was only the first of many. Salazar recalled many instances in which he had to engage in combat with Max always loyally remaining by his side. He recounted one mission in particular, a large-scale incursion into a Taliban compound that lasted several hours.
After the door of the compound was broken down, Salazar volunteered to go first into the building. As dog and handler searched the compound, Max discovered an IED booby trap concealed around a corner. With knowledge of the IED, Salazar and his unit continued to clear the compound, discovering an “IED factory” and other valuable enemy assets. The mission was very successful.
Max’s impeccable sense of smell undoubtedly saved lives that day, said Salazar.
“I was very proud to say that everyone came home safe whenever I led the way,” said Salazar. “But I know it wasn’t me. It was Max; he was the one who was doing all the work.”
Another incident would get Salazar recognized for his, and Max’s, courage under enemy fire.
Salazar volunteered for a mission to a village known for being a hot zone of Taliban activity. As his unit infiltrated the town on foot, they came under heavy small arms fire. Eventually, Salazar found himself and his squad pinned down in a field, surrounded by walls crawling with Taliban fighters.
As Salazar engaged targets in front of him, Max suddenly pulled his leash rearward. Feeling the sudden movement, Salazar turned his attention behind him, spotting a Taliban gunman climbing a wall to their rear. Salazar spun and threw his body protectively over Max, firing his weapon and yelling out the target’s position at the same time.
“He was not only our asset for explosive protection. He was my partner,” said Salazar. “My dog’s got to stay safe. That’s why I laid my body across him while I shot.”
Salazar credited Max with keeping him and other service members safe that day.
“Max is what caused me to turn around. He saved our lives that day,” said Salazar. “I, and my whole unit, was extremely grateful.”
Salazar received and Army Commendation Medal with Valor for his actions that day. In addition to his commendation, Salazar also received a combat promotion to 1st Class Petty Officer during his time in Afghanistan.
However, as the deployment went on, Salazar began to notice a change in Max.
“As time went on, we saw more and more combat. I could see it was wearing him down,” said Salazar.
Toward the end of the deployment, the in-and-out grind of combat began to have a great effect on Max, as well as Salazar. He recalled seeing a difference in how Max reacted when he began to put on his Kevlar battle gear and ready his gun. It seemed like the dog knew, ahead of time, that they were heading into danger.
“Max couldn’t say what was going on with him, but I could just tell something was wrong,” said Salazar.
Near the end of deployment, Salazar and Max went on fewer and fewer missions. Max was eventually put on medication to help deal with combat stress.
“I started getting burned out toward the end,” said Salazar. “I was starting to see the light at end of the tunnel though, and that was good.”
After completing his deployment, Salazar returned to Everett, where he took the position of military working dog kennel supervisor.
Max also returned to NSE. After the rigors of Afghanistan, dog handlers in Everett had to work to help Max recover fully.
“The handlers here did a great job building him back up,” said Salazar “He’s a war veteran now. It took some time, but he’s up and battle ready again.”
Max is now back on active duty protecting NSE. Upon his return, he was assigned a new handler. Though Salazar was saddened to no longer be his handler, he was very pleased to be able to see Max at work every day.
“We aren’t a team anymore, but we’ll always have that bond. I trusted him with my life for a long time, and he earned every bit of that trust,” he said. “He saved my life and many others. I’ll never forget that.”
Salazar is scheduled to transfer to a new command in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He is also slated to attend school at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas to receive a “Kennel Master” Navy Enlisted Classification (NEC). This NEC will certify Salazar as a leader in the Navy dog handler community.
Though he will miss seeing Max every day, Salazar is excited to continue his career.
“I love being a dog handler. Military working dogs save lives, I know that from experience,” he said. “It’s very rewarding to work with these amazing dogs, and I can’t wait to keep doing it.”