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K9 Teams Sniffing Out Explosives, Chasing Bad Guys, Protecting Soldiers

On Veteran’s Day and every day, Samantha Maghamez honors her grandfather, Webb Bisbee, a World War II Army Air Corps parachute soldier, who inspired her to choose a military career in service of her country.

Master Sergeant Select Maghamez trains military working dogs at the 341st Training Squadron on Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Her students are German shepherds, Belgian malinois, Dutch shepherds, Labrador retrievers and sometimes terriers.

“Here at the school house, we work with the dogs for 120 days in explosive and drug detection,” said the 5’7”, 130-pound military working dog trainer. “Obedience is the foundation for teaching almost anything. You’re building a rapport with the dog. If you are looking for a bad guy in a building, the dog has to trust and obey when you need him to jump through a window that you had to break open. We also teach controlled aggression – how to bite a man or woman if need be – and also teach them to listen to the handler if they have to be called off.”

Maghamez describes a typical mission where troops are given a set of coordinates and the objective is to arrive at a predetermined destination by a certain time and day.

“As a dog team, you are out in front of the squad – 10 to 30 people – with an ‘overwatch’ protecting you. The dog is on a 360 [degree] retractable leash and the dog’s mission is to find explosives. Normally, you’re on rough terrain.”

The handler’s job is to be observant of the area being searched and notice behavior changes in the dog. “An ‘overwatch’ is someone who walks with you,” she explained, “and that person is covering your back. If shots are fired, the main mission is to protect the dog team. The dog team is a valuable asset.”

When deployed, Maghamez carries an M9 pistol and M4 rifle, but her first responsibility is to get the dog to a secure spot before she can return fire.

Maghamez has operated with three military K9s in the field. Ringo, a 75-pound Belgium malinois, led her on a two-mile chase in search of an intruder on Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. Brit, an 80-pound German shepherd, provided explosive detector dog support for President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden when they flew on Air Force One. Brit retired at age 10 with Maghamez and lived to be 14 years old. Besy, a 70-pound German shepherd, was a key member in the task force to prevent Taliban weapons trafficking and enemy soldiers from crossing Afghanistan’s borders.

She and Besy would move through the mountains at night during missions. Maghamez would carry enough water for both of them for days at a time, leading the way to make sure the path was clear of explosives and a safe route was established for the team.

“The best feeling is coming back. Every one of the soldiers would thank the dog team that they made it back in one piece.”

Maghamez says on every mission, there’s the chance of stepping on an improvised explosive device (IED) and dying. “We lost as many as 29 military working dog teams during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. I lost a dear friend a few months after returning home from Afghanistan. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in 2012.” Every year, Maghamez places a patch or flag on his grave to honor him and his sacrifice.

A military working dog’s career often starts at age one and can last anywhere from nine to 14 years. They are a very specialized unit, as a dog’s nose is more capable of finding an IED than any type of equipment. Fewer than 1,400 K9 teams are trained, requested, and deployed around the world.

Maghamez says the bond between the dog and the handler “is, honestly, priceless,” as each is committed to saving the other’s life.

In some cases, the relationship extends beyond the tour of duty. Besy, now retired, lives with Maghamez. He suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “We dealt with a lot of attacks in Kandahār. There were a lot of vehicles and noises. He can’t handle fireworks or thunderstorms. So, even if you closed a truck bed, Besy would try to go under the vehicle. It was very hard on me that I couldn’t help him.”

Besy was honored with the 2012 K9 Medal for Exceptional Service from the organization K9s of the War on Terror, Inc. The recognition states: “Besy, who, with her handler SSgt. Samantha D. Navarrette, was engaged in 1,250 hours of border patrols and checkpoint operation in Southern Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. Additionally, Besy was involved in counter-explosives detection raids in the Wanoke Valley and Lowy Kalay in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan. In recognition of these accomplishments, Besy is awarded the K9 Medal for Exceptional Service – November 17.”

Maghamez joined the Air Force when she was 19. As a child, she was fascinated by the stories her grandfather would share with her. “He never talked about the war with anyone, except me. That was ‘our time.’ I was the oldest granddaughter. At the age of 12, I knew I wanted to be in the military or be a veterinarian because of my love for animals. It’s amazing that I have this job in the military working with animals.”

Although she has been in the Emergency Room with more than one dog bite through her hand, she says she loves her job, the dogs, and, above all, her country. “Just 1.4 percent of all female Americans have ever served in the armed forces. I like being that 1.4 percent.”

She and her husband of four years, USAF Military Training Instructor Todd Maghamez, live in San Antonio, where she continues to work as a military working dog trainer and competes in National Physique Committee (NPC) bikini competitions. 

Last month, Samantha reenlisted for another five-year term. During the ceremony, Besy escorted her, carrying the U.S. flag that belonged to Maghamez’ grandfather in his harness. QCBN

By Bonnie Stevens, QCBN

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