Worst of the Best
Thomas Calabrese Editor and Contributing Writer Greg Nielsen –United States Marine Forces Special Operations is a component of Special Operations Command. (SOCOM) MARSOC’s core capabilities are direct action, special reconnaissance, foreign defense, counter terrorism and information operations. Sergeant Joseph Smithfield became a Special Operations Capabilities Specialist with MARSOC, three years after becoming a Marine Corps Dog Handler and serving two overseas tours in Afghanistan.
Years earlier, Joe was halfway through the 59-day course at the School of Infantry and was climbing a rope on the obstacle course. He touched the crossbeam to indicate that he made it to the top and was descending when the rope broke and he fell 30 feet to the ground. The pit beneath him was filled with soft sand so Joe didn’t break any bones, but he was knocked unconscious from the impact. The Corpsman placed a cervical collar around his neck and Joe was rushed to the Camp Pendleton Hospital.
When he awakened the next morning, Joe’s head was throbbing and he had a headache that was shooting needles through his left eye. The cervical collar was still attached so Joe was unable to turn his head to the left or right.
Navy Doctor Karen Bashor entered Joe’s room and stood at the foot of the bed, “How are you feeling today, P.F.C. Smithfield?”
Joe grimaced, “Pretty sore, Ma’am.”
“That’s to be expected. We ran a series of tests and everything came back negative which is good. We’ll need to keep you immobilized for a few more days.”
“Then I go back to my unit?”
Doctor Bashor answered, “You’ll be assigned to a medical rehabilitation platoon until it is determined that you are able to resume training.”
“Which means that I’ll have to start over.”
“That might be the case,” Doctor Bashor said, “Or command might let you pick up where you left off. That’s not a medical decision.”
After being released from the hospital, Joe was assigned to a barracks in the Del Mar area of the base. His instructions were clear; no lifting, running or strenuous exercise, but he could do some walking. Joe chose to use the Del Mar Beach for this activity. There was a campground adjacent to the beach and a lot of retirees used it throughout the year. Many brought their dogs and would walk to the lagoon and back again.
After completing his workout in the soft sand, Joe sat on the four-foot high wall that separated the beach from the asphalt path. He was daydreaming when two women came walking their mid-sized dogs. Joe glanced over at them and thought he heard a male’s voice talking to him. He surveyed his surroundings, but nobody was there.
When the two dogs got directly in front of him they stopped and made eye contact. The two women tried to pull them away, but they wouldn’t budge.
Joe heard, “Yeah, it’s me,” and realized it was coming from the brown dog, but it wasn’t an audio message, but a thought inside his mind.
The black dog communicated the same way, “Kind of strange, huh?”
Joe relayed his thoughts,” No kiddin’, do you know what’s going on?”
The brown dog conveyed, “Not a clue…we’re instinctive creatures, so we kind of go with the flow.”
The first woman was amazed at how her dog stared at Joe, “I’ve never seen him do that before.”
The black dog jumped on the wall, placed his right paw on Joe’s shoulder and conveyed, “Hang in there… you’ll figure it out.”
The second woman pulled out her cellphone and took a photo of her dog sitting next to Joe, “I need to document this. It took him three weeks to warm up to me and in three seconds, he’s your best buddy.”
After transitioning from ‘no duty status’ to ‘light duty’, Joe was assigned a work detail with the Provost Marshal’s Office. While doing menial paperwork in the clerk’s office, Joe watched the military police dog handlers working with their canine partners in the field behind the headquarters. When he was given a break, Joe went outside to get a closer look at the dogs going through their own obstacle course. He could hear the thoughts of the animals communicating with each other. Statements like these were bouncing all over the place.
“Is that the best you can do?”
“Don’t worry about me.”
“Eat my dust.”
Joe was laughing at the escapades of the dogs when Master Sergeant Gilbert Mathers walked over and snarled, “What the hell are you laughing at, Marine?”
Joe stood up, “Nothing, Master Sergeant, I was just enjoying watching the dogs.”
Mathers snapped, “Knock it off, you look like an idiot.”
After the senior enlisted man walked off, one of the sentry dogs conveyed, “You need to be careful, can’t let people know that you communicate with us.”
Joe responded, “I’m learning that the hard way.”
PFC Smithfield healed from his injury. He was lucky enough to be assigned to another company that was only three days behind where Joe’s original unit was when he left them. After completing infantry training, Joe met with Staff Sergeant Brandon Tatum, the battalion career planner, about applying to be a military police officer.
Staff Sergeant Tatum inquired, “Why do you want to be an M.P?”
Joe said, “Actually I want to be a dog handler and I need the MOS of 5811 first.”
“You’re right about that,” Staff Sergeant Tatum explained, “You have to be a 5811, before applying for the secondary MOS of 5812. Here is the reality of the situation; a Marine needs to show exemplary leadership, fitness and discipline from the first day they join the Corps. Is that you?”
Joe didn’t know how to respond so he just said, “I’m working on getting there.”
Staff Sergeant Tatum continued, “See if this discourages you, becoming a military dog handler is highly sought after by a large portion of Marines who join the military police. The level of competition is extremely high since there are a limited number of dogs available on a regular basis.”
“I’m aware of that, Staff Sergeant. I would still like to try,” Joe said.
“I’ve got a feeling about you, so I’ll help in any way that I can. Don’t make me regret my decision.”
Joe expressed his gratitude, “That would be the last thing that I would want to do.”
Staff Sergeant Tatum gave Joe a list of things to focus on, in order to be accepted to the Military Police. Joe followed it to the letter and was finally accepted after nine months of hard work.
“Well done, Marine,” Staff Sergeant Tatum said when he notified Joe of the good news.”
Once he was accepted as a military police officer, Joe made it emphatically clear to his command that he wanted to be a dog handler. He worked to improve his physical fitness, volunteered at every opportunity and got letters of recommendations from everyone in his immediate chain of command, to show that he would go above and beyond the normal expectations of duty.
Ten potential candidates from the First Law Enforcement Battalion were taken to the kennels where the sentry dogs were kept. Gunnery Sergeant Edward Hirsch explained how the final selection would be conducted, “We will only select two of you. Our senior dog handlers will submit their evaluations on your interactions with the canines, and I’ll make the final decision.”
Joe sat in the bleachers and watched his fellow Marines go through a series of tests to determine their suitability to be a dog handler. He was the last one to be called, Gunny Hirsch said, “Smithfield, you can’t avoid it any longer…you’re up!”
The dog handler was holding his canine partner by a leash. One of the tests was to see how potential applicants reacted when the handler charged at him with their dogs snarling and barking.
Joe communicated telepathically with the dog, “It’s up to you if I get in…will you help me out?”
The dog responded, “Yeah, no problem…you take the lead and I’ll follow.”
Joe called to the handler, “You can let your dog off leash.”
“He’ll bite you,” the handler warned.
“I’ll take my chances,” Joe responded.
Gunny Hirsch interjected, “I’m not going to fill out a report because they have to take you to sick bay for getting injured. If you want to do this, then put on the bite suit.”
After putting on the thickly padded suit to protect him from injury, the handler released his canine partner with the instructions to attack.
The German Shepherd ran full speed at Joe and everybody expected the animal to take him to the ground, but at the last second Joe raised his right hand and the dog immediately stopped before him. Joe gave another command and the dog sat down. He gave another command and the dog lied down, rolled over and Joe rubbed his stomach.
The dog conveyed, “That should get you in.”
Everybody was dumbfounded, they had never seen a trained sentry dog act in this manner before, especially with a stranger. Joe was one of the two Marines selected. He left nine days later to begin the 11-week Military Working Dog Basic Handler Course, conducted by the 341st Training Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas.
Joe was paired with a one-year-old Belgian Malinois, named Boone, and their connection was instantaneous. After graduation he returned to Camp Pendleton. Three weeks later, Joe was called into the office of Major Greg Leandro. “I received word from Division that Special Operations is looking for dog handlers. Since you graduated at the top of your class, your name was high on their list. Are you interested?”
“May I think about it, Sir?” Joe asked.
“Absolutely, I would expect no less.”
When Joe left the executive officer’s office, he went directly to the kennels where his canine partner Boone was located and told him, “I need to discuss something. Since it pertains to both of us, I don’t want to make a decision unless we’re in agreement.”
Next morning, Joe returned to Major Leandro’s office, “We’ll accept the transfer to Special Ops, sir.”
Major Leandro was puzzled, “What do you mean, we?”
“My partner and me, sir.”
A month later, Joe and Boone were in Afghanistan and assigned to a reconnaissance team. The death of a Green Beret in a New Year’s Day firefight in Nangahar province was a grim reminder of the continued violence in the deadliest province in the deadliest country where Americans are deployed. U.S. warplanes had conducted hundreds of strikes and U.S. special operations troops carried out hundreds more tactical operations on the ground in the area. Nowhere was it more dangerous for American troops than where Joe and Boone were right now.
The orders were clear, the patrol was supposed to recon the area and meet up with another patrol. With Joe and Boone in the lead, searching for improvised explosive devices (IED), they approached a canyon with steep rock walls on both sides. Joe stopped and called the patrol leader up to his position.
“What do you got?” Sergeant Cresswell inquired.
Joe answered, “We don’t like this.”
“Boone and me are a team,” Joe replied.
Sergeant Cresswell pulled out his map and set it on the ground, “If we don’t go through this canyon, it’s an extra day to walk around it. We’re supposed to meet up with Charlie Company by tomorrow morning.”
“I’m walking point, you either trust my judgment or you don’t,” Joe said impatiently.
Sergeant Cresswell hesitated, “I don’t outrank you so I can’t order you to go. What are your suggestions?”
“I discussed it with Boone…I mean, let me send my dog in first,” Joe offered.
“You’re one strange dude, so you send your dog in, what’s that supposed to do?”
Joe countered, “Then we’ll know for sure.”
“I’ll wait one hour then I’m moving through,” Sergeant Cresswell stated clearly.
Joe responded, “I won’t need that long.”
Joe and Boone walked away for a little privacy and Boone communicated, “Cresswell is a hardcase.”
“Would you rather have a snowflake?” Joe communicated.
Boone conveyed, “Point taken, how do you want to play this?”
“Run fast and come back,” Joe expressed.
“I was born to run fast,” Boone growled.
Joe pulled out a piece of metamaterial from his pack and secured it around Boone’s torso. It was a cloaking device that bent electromagnetic waves around itself and the object it was cloaking. The special cloth was comprised of panels capable of changing color and luminosity. Optical camouflage has the potential to blend in with the scene directly behind the wearer so that the wearer appears invisible.
The next thing Joe put on Boone was a GoPro camera. This device is used predominantly by individuals taking part in activities such as biking, running, skateboarding and climbing.
“Be careful,” Joe said.
Boone raced into the canyon as well concealed and heavily armed Taliban fighters prepared to ambush the Marine patrol. They caught fleeting glimpses of something moving pass them, but couldn’t determine what it was. Fifteen minutes later, Boone exited the canyon. Joe poured water into a plastic bowl and the dog drank from it. Once his thirst was quenched, Boone conveyed, “They’re waiting in there for us.”
Joe checked the video footage on the Go Pro camera and although he could not see any Taliban fighters, he did notice numerous places where they could be hiding. He informed the members of the patrol that it was unsafe to enter.
Sergeant Cresswell sighed, “If that’s the call…then I guess we’ll suck it up and double-time it out of here.”
While taking the alternate route back to the rendezvous point, the patrol engaged enemy combatants and two Marines were seriously wounded in a fierce firefight. When they got back to Forward Operating Base Torkham, Sergeants Cresswell and Smithfield were called to Battalion Commander, Lt. Colonel Dan Lozza’s Quonset hut. He was visibly upset, “Who made the decision for changing your route?”
Sergeant Cresswell immediately took the blame, “That would be me, sir.”
Joe quickly interceded, “Sergeant Cresswell only made that decision based on my recommendations. I was point man and I told him that continuing through the canyon was too dangerous. The responsibility is mine and mine alone, sir.”
“Okay I get it, plans have to change when you’re in the field…adapt and overcome. War is a fluid situation. Tell me what Intel led you to make this decision. Did you see something…hear something?” Colonel Lozza inquired.
Joe sought to find a logical answer that the Colonel would accept, but only had the unbelievable one that his dog told him.
Sergeant Cresswell interjected, “He sent Boone to look around.”
“Who’s Boone?” Colonel Lozza asked.
Joe answered, “That would be my dog.”
Colonel Lozza shook his head and responded sarcastically, “What the hell did he tell you, don’t go in?”
Joe wanted to say, ‘Yes sir’, but kept his mouth shut.
“Sergeant Cresswell, you’re dismissed, Smithfield, standfast.”
After Cresswell left, Colonel Lozza tore into Sergeant Smithfield, “I’ve heard rumors about you, this weird relationship that you have with your dog. As long as you were doing your job, I let it go. I don’t pretend to know the bond between a handler and his dog.
It is one thing if your animal picked up a scent of a Taliban fighter or a bomb, but sending him a couple miles ahead to scout the area is beyond my comprehension. I’ve had dog handlers under my command in the past and none of them ever operated like you do. I don’t trust you, Sergeant Smithfield. I saw your record and know that you graduated at the top of your dog handler class. To be honest with you, if you’re the best then you’re the worst of the best. I’m going to bust you down to corporal and transfer you to a different unit. Get your act together before you end up in the brig or court martialed! You’re next commanding officer might not be as kind-hearted as me.”
When Joe got back to Boone, his dog asked, “How did it go?”
Joe answered, “Not good…you can call me corporal from now on.”
“You did the right thing…what was our other option, knowingly walk into an ambush?” Boone conveyed.
When Joe and Boone arrived by helicopter at an isolated outpost called Condor, PFC Eddie Liu walked up to them. “What the hell did you do to get sent here?”
“What do you mean?” Joe replied.
Eddie Liu smiled, “You don’t end up at the infamous Condor because you’re A.J. Squared Away.”
Joe and Boone quickly earned the respect of the Marines at the outpost with their uncanny ability to determine where enemy combatants and explosive devices were located. They saved a lot of lives with their actions.
It was early morning when two patrols went out on that fateful day, unfortunately, Joe and Boone could only go with one of them. The patrols were ordered to stay parallel to each other at a distant of one click (1000 meters) and scout a large open area that was reported by aerial surveillance to have increased enemy activity.
Joe and Boone were in the lead as usual. They detected five explosive devices within the first three hours of the patrol. Boone conveyed, “I wonder how the other patrol is doing, especially if they’re running into the same amount of mines as we are.”
Joe concurred, “Without a dog like you, it’s going to be a lot slower and more dangerous for them,”
Sergeant Donaldson, the other patrol leader radioed, “We’re having trouble keeping up…the trail is heavily booby trapped.”
Sergeant Almeda returned the radio call, “We’ll slow our pace. Radio us back when you reach the first checkpoint.”
“Roger that,” Sergeant Donaldson replied.
Sergeant Almeda called out, “Take 15.”
The patrol immediately sat down, some took water, others pulled out c-rations from their packs. Joe wanted to help the other patrol, but if he left the Marines that he was with, then they would be in the same position…it was a no win situation, no matter how he looked at it.
During the break, a frantic radio call came in, “We’re taking heavy fire…repeat taking heavy fire!”
Sergeant Almeda radioed back to the outpost, “Checkmate-Red-Six requesting permission to reinforce Checkmate-Black-Three, over.”
The radio call came back, “This is Shamrock-One-Zero, hold your position. We’re detecting bogeys approaching south-southwest.”
Joe approached Sergeant Almeda, “I’ve seen this trick before, we go rushing in and they cut us to pieces.”
Sergeant Almeda was visibly frustrated, “So we just sit here and do nuthin’?
Joe knew what he had to do, “Dig in, just in case the Taliban decide to come this way. Boone and me will go.”
“We’ve been ordered to stand fast.”
Joe shrugged, “I guess if I live, they can court martial me.” He dropped all his excess gear and got a dozen bandoliers of ammo from the other Marines. He looped them over his shoulders and turned to Boone, “What do you think… is this a good idea?”
Boone conveyed, “That remains to be seen. Right now Marines are in trouble and they need us.”
Joe and Boone took off at full speed toward the trapped Marine patrol. Boone was running twenty-five yards ahead and when he saw the enemy, he barked to alert Joe who immediately hit the deck. Boone attacked one Taliban fighter and killed him by severing his carotid artery. They found a parcel of ground behind the enemy and Joe got into the prone position with Boone right beside him, and began shooting at the Taliban fighters. This diverted the attention of the enemy which allowed the beleaguered patrol to take the offensive. Joe killed 14 fighters and only had three rounds of ammunition left by the time a helicopter arrived with reinforcements from the Firebase Acorn.
Joe received an official reprimand for disobeying orders, then subsequently was recommended for the Navy Cross for his bravery. To those in his chain of command, he may have been the worst of the best, to the Marines that he went into harm’s way with, he was one of the best. To the dogs who shared his special secret, Joe Smithfield was the Ultimate Dog Whisperer.
***This is a fiction . While it may have some facts in it, the reader should realize that the story was created by the writer for entertainment purposes.