Images courtesy: Sgt. Jason Cartwright
The temperature hit 110 degrees as Sgt. Jason Cartwright and his specialized search dog hunted for improvised explosive devices buried beneath some of the world's deadliest terrain. During a perilous nine-hour search in the southern Afghanistan heat, the soldier tried to cool down Isaac, a 4-year-old black Labrador he trained to save lives.
With Taliban spotters looking down from mountaintops and radioing back American positions to fellow terrorists, the Army dog handler knew his patrol was a prime target as he and Isaac searched for bombs in a dry waterway, with a platoon depending on them following closely behind. That's when all hell broke loose.
"The gunfire started, and it was just everywhere. You could hear the echoes of it," Cartwright told The Unknown Soldiers. "All you can hear is the sound of automatic machine guns — you can hear the bullets whizzing by your head."
Immediately upon hitting the ground, the 28-year-old soldier, who went through five months of intense training to become a dog handler after returning from Iraq, screamed for Isaac. The dog was searching for IEDs about 35 feet ahead when the chaos erupted.
"I saw bullets hit right in front of him, and he flinched a little bit and hesitated," Cartwright said. "But once the dog was back to me, I told him to stay, very loudly, of course, but he wasn't shaking. He laid down right beside me."
With Isaac safe, his handler frantically shot back before the firefight ended and the brave tandem finished a "hasty search" for IEDs. There were no American casualties in the battle.
Cartwright and Isaac are part of the Engineer Canine Company of the 5th Engineer Battalion, a unique company of valiant soldiers stationed at Missouri's Fort Leonard Wood. Along with their dogs, handlers deploy individually to combat theaters to support units across the military that are deemed to be at high risk of IED attacks.
"It's pretty much just you and your dog," the Alabama native said of deploying overseas. "You go by yourself and you don't know anybody."
While training Isaac was "fun," knowing the risks they would face together in battle heightened the stakes.
"I have no issues going to work every day because I love my job, but when you are deployed, it changes things up a little bit," the soldier explained.
"These are real IEDs — real explosives — and everything else is out of the picture."
Cartwright said he and Isaac found 28 improvised explosive devices during their year together in Afghanistan, saving countless Americans and Afghans from being killed or wounded. Today, one 40-pound homemade bomb, which was wired to a mortar round, sticks out in the sergeant's mind.
"The Taliban (plants) IEDs around schools and hospitals so villagers can't access them," Cartwright said. "There was a school, and we went to check it.
"Within 20 minutes, we get to a bridge, and Isaac lets me know that there is some kind of explosive that he detected," he continued. "I told everyone behind us to stop and get down."
Isaac was closest to the bomb, and the dog's odds of living were probably about 50-50.
"The dangerous part about calling your dog off is that I'm thinking he's going to step on a pressure plate," Cartwright said. "But I called him back to me, took care of him and secured him."
A heroic explosive ordnance disposal team was called to the area and subsequently disabled the device. Without this soldier and his dog, though, they never would have known where to look.
"You have guys coming up to you and patting you on the back and wanting to play with Isaac," Cartwright said. "They are saying, 'We appreciate it, we've lost so many guys from IEDs — you probably saved my life or someone else in my platoon.'
"It's a good feeling."
Seizing the chance to save even more fellow troops from the biggest post-9/11 threat to their safety, Sgt. Jason Cartwright will soon head back to Afghanistan. But he won't be alone.
"I couldn't imagine going back without my dog," he said. "We have a special rapport and special bond; I know I trust that dog, and that dog trusts me."
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