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News > Last goodbye: Airmen bid farewell to fellow combat vet
Last goodbye: Airmen bid farewell to fellow combat vet

Posted 11/12/2010   Updated 11/12/2010 Email story   Print story


by Micah Garbarino
Tinker Public Affairs

11/12/2010 - TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla.  -- The Airmen of the 72nd Security Forces Squadron Military Working Dog Section said goodbye to a fellow combat vet for the final time Oct. 20 and are preparing a memorial service for Nov. 16.

His ashes, in a small wooden box, were delivered to them that afternoon by a Tinker veterinarian, as they gathered in the front room of their small cinder-block compound in the Tinker "cop-plex," and remembered the life of K-9 Bratling, a 7-year-old German Shepherd.

"It sucks losing a dog. It's not something you're prepared to deal with - almost like losing a family member," said Staff Sgt. Roger Martin, Bratling's most recent handler.

Although he had been deployed to Iraq three times and served on presidential and VIP protection missions, Bratling did not die from wounds suffered in combat. Instead, he was taken by a more common killer, cancer.

When the lives of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines depend on the temperament and nose of a dog in combat, there can be no room for error.

"A dog is more reliable than an Airman a lot of times," said Tech. Sgt. Matthew Troiano, a military working dog trainer with the 72nd SFS. "When the shooting starts, you know what they're going to do. They have been trained to stay calm in gunfire. They never talk back and they don't care if you busted them the day before."

When they're on the front lines, the dogs must remain consistent.

"It's our job to clear culverts, roadways and compounds. We're relying on them and the whole team is putting their trust in the dog," said Staff Sgt. Manuel Gamboa, a military working dog handler with the 72nd SFS.

There was something obviously wrong with Bratling for a long time the team said. He was failing to pick up scents and detect threats. They tried giving him new handlers. He went through four in a year. Nothing worked.

Once an eager, energetic working dog, Bratling was not acting the same as he had during his two tours in Iraq.

"We weren't comfortable deploying him anymore. He probably wouldn't have lasted a week," said Tech Sgt. John Ater, Military Working Dog trainer and supervisor.

They soon found out why. Bratling's spleen ruptured, he was rushed to the base veterinarian who, during the surgery, found the cancer. It eventually spread. They treated Bratling the best they could, said Sergeant Martin. The cops brought in a couch where Bratling spent his last week eating "like a king" - beef jerky, hamburgers, tacos and burritos.

For animals, it's easy to move on. They do what they are trained to do. Often a military working dog will have five to seven handlers over an 11-year career. This is done so that the dog doesn't get too attached to one handler. But this is not so for the handlers, it doesn't take into account the "human element."

"When you have a dog, you're responsible for feeding it, keeping it healthy, maintaining its attitude and you're with it 24/7. Everywhere you go, he goes. You share all the same experiences," said Sergeants Gamboa and Troiano.

All the experiences with Bratling will not be wasted on the flight's Airmen.

Through his hard work, sudden change to inconsistency and even death, Bratling provided a valuable lesson to all the handlers, said Master Sgt. Wavelon Jackson, NCOIC of the Military Working Dog Section.

"We assumed it was his attitude, but now we all can think back on Bratling and say 'Something was wrong here that the dog couldn't verbalize,'" Sergeant Jackson said.

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