By Staff Sgt. Craig Cantrell
4th Infantry Division Public Affairs Office
Sniffing out explosives, subduing potential threats and protecting the lives of his comrades encompassed a day’s work for Bronco, a nine-year veteran of the Department of Defense’s Military Working Dog program.
The Belgian Malinois’ handler, Staff Sgt. John Mariana, had just arrived to the 148th Military Police Detachment, 759th MP Battalion, where he was teamed up with Bronco in October of 2010, deploying a month later in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
“When we linked up as a team, it was an instant connection,” said Mariana. “We were a tough team to compare to, because we were so good together. It made us the team to beat.”
Dog and handler teams are typically allowed 90 days to bond and build a rapport before conducting missions, said Mariana. The teams learn to patrol together, detect drugs or explosives and conduct MWD functions specialized to their mission.
“The training a military working dog handler has to conduct every month is almost overwhelming,” said Capt. James Bloom, Mariana’s former company commander with 148th MP.
With the deployment rapidly approaching, the unit chose to pair Bronco, a veteran of OEF, with Mariana, a veteran of three previous deployments, taking advantage of their experiences in a combat zone, he said.
Upon completing 30 days of training, the MWD team deployed to Afghanistan.
“You deploy as an individual with your dog and get assigned to a unit of strangers,” said acting Fort Carson Kennel Master Staff Sgt. Matthew Clayton, 148th MP. “You have to be able to mesh in with that unit quick to do your mission.”
Upon arrival in Afghanistan, Mariana and Bronco were assigned to a Special Forces group team.
Mariana said the work ethic and mutual respect he and his working dog had for each other immediately gained the respect of the Soldiers they were assigned to support.
“We try (to) get mature noncommissioned officers to do this, because they have to sell their capabilities to a commander on the ground,” said Bloom.
Mariana and Bronco’s mission entailed clearing dusty foot patrol routes of improvised explosive devices and entering buildings ahead of the team to “sniff” out any explosives or combatants waiting to ambush U.S. and Afghan forces.
The MWD team found three explosive devices on their first mission within hours of stepping off a CH-47 Chinook in November.
“We would clear up to our objective, and when we got there, he would go in and search the objective,” said Mariana.
The duo discovered approximately 30 explosive devices while on patrols, keeping the rest of their team safe and able to complete their missions.
“Bronco would go up to 300 meters on his own, searching the roadway where we would be walking,” said Mariana. “That gave us a good amount of standoff distance from us and any type of threat.”
During a mission in June 2011, a single event changed the lives of both team members.
“It’s one of those nights I will never forget,” said Mariana.
While on patrol, an enemy combatant drew an AK47, aligning his sites on Mariana and prepared to fire. Mariana instinctively commanded Bronco to engage the combatant the way they practiced bite training many times before. Bronco attacked the combatant, sinking his teeth into the enemy in an effort to protect his handler from harm. The combatant fired a 7.62mm round from the assault rifle that disintegrated the right side of Bronco’s muzzle. Bronco ran away in pain.
Mariana’s instincts as a dog handler kicked in, and he began to pursue his dog, following the blood trail left by the wounded animal. He found his partner and began to apply first aid to stop the bleeding coming from Bronco’s muzzle while they waited for help.
A medical evacuation transport flew the dog team to Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan, where Bronco underwent life-saving surgery.
Following surgery, Bronco began the healing process, recovering in his kennel on Bagram Airfield.
Mariana slept in Bronco’s concrete kennel for two weeks, holding the dog’s mouth open to ensure he could breathe throughout the night.