The following is the story of Air Force Staff Sergeant Len Anderson and his military working dog, Azza. Their experiences were documented in February on Animal Planet special, "Glory Hounds."
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A military working dog is a dog with a warrior's heart. About 600 of these extraordinary animals accompany our armed forces on dangerous overseas missions, protecting them and executing skills not even the most trained human could match. In doing so, they experience the same friendship, the same trials, the same loss as the humans they serve. To many, they are not dogs at all; they are just as much soldiers as the men and women who stand beside them.
Air Force Staff Sergeant Len Anderson knows the depth of this kind of bond. Anderson has been working with MWDs since he was introduced to the K-9 program in 2006. He has been partnered with his current dog, Azza for over a year. His duties as a handler and trainer have taken him to Florida, Korea, Alaska, and most recently, Afghanistan. His bond with his military working dog Azza go far beyond the professional -- he says she literally saved his life.
He says MWDs serve an invaluable purpose in the field. "It's hard to beat dogs," he says. "You can possibly find a way to beat a machine, but you can't beat dogs. Dogs' noses are one-of-a-kind...they can bust anything, from drugs to IEDS, to finding someone in the woods. Single-handedly, they can provide safe passage for troops to get the mission done."
The dogs are also a chance for the men and women in the field to experience a precious sliver of normalcy. "Azza is a really social dog," Anderson says. "She loves attention and to give attention. You're in a stressful enviroment, and business comes first. But then you've got some downtime, it's good to spend some time with the dogs. It allows you to get some semblance of home."
He never thought he and Azza end would up in a combat zone, but once he was deployed, Anderson insisted he be included in missions even though his duties could have kept him safely on base. "You gotta lead from the front," he says. "I'm not gonna ask my guys to do anything I wouldn't do myself."
It's the sort of attitude that one expects from the military's best -- but unfortunately, courage rarely keeps you safe. In July, 2012, Anderson and his team were hit by a roadside bomb while on patrol outside a Taliban compound. Anderson was badly wounded, but he says that without Azza he may not have survived at all.
It had happened twice that day -- Azza changing her behavior to indicate something was wrong. The first time, Anderson and his team called in bomb technicians, and sure enough, there was an IED merely feet away from where they were. "I could have stepped on it," Anderson says. "[Azza] was just glowing. You couldn't hug her hard enough, you could tell her thank you enough."
The second time, the team wasn't so lucky. They had noticed some strange behavior while patrolling a road. The sound of a motorcycle -- a possible scout -- caught their attention. Suddenly, Azza threw a change of behavior and crossed the road, sticking her muzzle into the ground. "I just froze in place," Anderson says. "It was mainly to try to read her a little bit better...see what she was going to do. She picked her head up, myself an a lieutenant took a few steps, and...boom."
Anderson says the bomb was probably detonated remotely. The blast sent the team, including a pair of Animal Planet cameramen who were embedded with them, flying. Anderson caught the brunt of it. He lost six fingers and endured severe trauma to his legs. "That's the facts of life when you're leading from the front," he says.
There is no doubt in Anderson's mind that Azza's actions helped save his life -- and the lives of his entire team. "If I would have just kept on walking, and not been paying attention, I would have been on top of the blast. I probably wouldn't be here," he says.
"Any time a dog saves a life, whether it's just the handler or the troops behind her, that puts you in a whole different category with the dogs...Once they save a life, that's a soldier standing there beside us. It's not a dog anymore. They're never a piece of equipment. They're a fellow soldier. They just have a different dangerous job, and they can't shoot a gun."
Anderson is recovering well after the incident. He recently had his left hand amputated, and he says he has decent use of his remaining fingers. Despite the nerve damage in his legs, Anderson says he'll be up and running soon.
As for Azza, the day of the blast, other people on the team say her gaze never left the spot where Anderson was being treated. She survived, and Anderson says his injuries will not deter him from continuing their work. "I have a huge passion for [K-9 work]. I'm not going to quit. This isn't going to slow me down. I'm going to find some way shape or form to continue to work and train the dogs. I love it, but it's a reality we face."
The partnership between man and dog -- soldier and soldier -- it's a bond for life. It's a bond that transcends language and loss. "It's like we have our own language," Anderson says. "It's hard to really put into words the bond we have."