CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- The shrapneltore into his midsection and blood was squirting from his right leg.Marine Cpl. Joseph Singer plugged the hole in his leg with a finger andfretted about his dog.
"Make sure my dog is all right," Singer told his colleagues as a medevac helicopter approached. "Don't forget my dog."
It was one of his last memories
before waking up in the United States. A medic on the aircraft jabbed him with morphine and he went under.
Explosives-sniffingdogs and their handlers have emerged as one of the most effectiveweapons in the fight against improvised explosives, the Taliban's weaponof choice in Afghanistan.
They can be more effective at timesthan sophisticated technology. Insurgents can build bombs with plasticparts to avoid metal detectors and use wires so jammers don't work. It'sharder to trick a well-trained dog's nose.
The dogs are trained to sniff out explosives.
"Ifthe odor is there you can't hide it from the dog," said Staff Sgt.Scott Chirdon, the chief trainer at a military dog platoon here. TheTaliban recognize the value of the dogs and try to disguise the smell ofthe roadside bombs and target the animals and handlers at everyopportunity.
"The Taliban is always trying to defeat them," Chirdon said. "The dogs keep fighting through it."
The bonds between dog and handler on the battlefield are as strong as those between Marines or soldiers.
"I never thought there was the possibility of getting that close to a dog before I had this job," Singer said.
In fact, Singer had no interest in becoming a dog handler until he joined the Marine Corps.
Singer,22, grew up in Coal City, Illinois, a small town about 60 milessouthwest of Chicago. After high school he went to a nearby juniorcollege, but he found himself drifting back to the same crowd ofchildhood friends, many of whom would never leave Coal City. He waslooking something more.
"I turned to the military to bring some discipline in my life," Singer said.
Afterboot camp he went to military police school. The Marine Corps wasgiving him exactly what he wanted. "I started to see who I could growinto," Singer said.
One day an instructor came out and asked the class, "Who likes dogs?"
Singer knew nothing about dog handlers though his family had dogs while growing up. He raised his hand.
Whatfollowed was months of schooling, where he learned to be a handler andtrained dogs. It was eye-opening. "If you put your mind to it you cantrain a dog to do anything," he said.
In 2010, Singer was assigneda dog, named Dollar, and deployed to Afghanistan for the first time. Helearned just how hard the work could be. Singer walked for dayscarrying more than 100 pounds on his back. He carried his own suppliesand a weapon in addition to the dogs' water, food and medicine.
He loved the job.
"Inever thought there was the possibility of getting that close to a dogbefore," Singer said. "There were nights when it was so cold out that Iwould have him crawl into my sleeping bag with me just so I could staywarm."
Singer returned to Camp Lejeune and was assigned Yona. Thetwo didn't get along at first. Singer was used to Dollar, who requiredstronger discipline. Yona didn't react well to a strict approach. Themore he yelled the less she did.
Singer thought the pair wasn't agood fit. "At first we were fighting back and forth," Singer said. "Ifshe didn't want to do something that day she wouldn't do it."
"It took a lot of time of us battling back and forth to find out what she needs to work," Singer said.
Bythe time, they got to Arizona for pre-deployment training, the two wereclicking. "That's when I felt we were going to be an amazing team," hesaid.
Back in Afghanistan this spring Singer and Yona wereassigned to Marine special operations forces, which regularly went ondangerous missions into remote parts of Helmand province. The smallteams inserted by helicopter at night.
In July Singer and Yona were on the first day of an operation to scout out an area north of a U.S. patrol base.
Theyhadn't been on the ground long before they found a cache of rocketpropelled grenades and explosives inside a mud-walled home. They blew itup and were heading back to a compound where they could rest as the sunwas coming up.
Shortly after Singer lay down he heard anexplosion and screaming. A Marine and an Afghan soldier were injured by agrenade fired from a launcher mounted on an assault rifle. The teamcalled in a medevac helicopter to evacuate them.
Singer and a Navycorpsman were looking over the damage when another grenade came intothe compound. Shrapnel sprayed all over the two. Blood was pouring fromhis leg and it felt as if all his ribs were broken.
He had earlierplaced Yona in a room next to where he had laid down under the overhangof a mud-walled home. The dog was unharmed.
Singer was carried tothe helicopter by four Afghan commandos. Yona boarded the helicoptertoo, attempting to get past the Air Force crew to get to her master whowas laid out on a stretcher.
"She thought I was laying down to play with her," Singer said.
Singerwas given a shot of morphine. It was the last time he would rememberseeing Yona before their reunion at Camp Lejeune. He was transferred toGermany and then the United States, spending weeks in the hospital, partof that time in a medically induced coma.
Yona was among thefirst things he asked about when he came to, said Singer's mother,Jennifer Cherveny. Cherveny had rushed to Germany to be by her son'sside. There she ran into the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. JamesAmos, and the top enlisted Marine, Sgt. Maj. Micheal Barrett, who werevisiting injured troops. She told them her son was worried about thedog.
Back in the United States, Barrett, sergeant major of theMarine Corps, personally brought Singer a photo of Yona from Afghanistanto prove he was doing well.
Singer plans to get out of the MarineCorps in a few months at the end of his initial enlistment. He isconsidering a career in dog training.
"I just ended up being good at it," he said. "It feels natural."
Today,Singer is mostly recovered and back at Camp Lejeune, where he hasreunited with his dog. Under a cloudless sky on a recent day, Singertossed a rubber toy to Yona, a Belgian malinois.
"I come here every opportunity I can," he said, reaching down to pet Yona. "Just looking at her I get happy."
When dogs here retire, handlers get first crack at adopting them. Chirdon said Singer is first in line to adopt Yona.
Butshe's not ready for retirement yet. Yona is 8 years old and shows nosign of flagging. "I can see her going for another three or four years,"Singer said. She's in line for another tour in Afghanistan.
Singersaid he tries not to think of the risk involved in going back overseas.Yona has had four combat deployments. This year the working dog platoonat Camp Lejeune deployed 30 dogs and one was killed. In the previousdeployment two dogs were killed.
"We look at it as she will takecare of that Marine and the team she supports and if something happens,then she did what she was trained to do," Chirdon said.
Singerknows that the first duty of working dogs is to sniff out bombs. "Theyare not your pets," Singer warns new handlers checking into the unit.
Still, Singer can't help but think about the future when Yona will be his.
"I'llhave her go everywhere with me - in my truck have her hanging out ofthe window," he said. "I'll probably let her sleep in my bed."