Daniel Buzalsky spent July 4 listening to the same percussive soundtrack as most Americans: boom-boom-boom, crack-crack-crack.
In Buzalsky’s neighborhood, it was Taliban gunfire.
“Most exciting Fourth of July I’ve ever had,” Buzalsky said a few days ago by phone from Afghanistan.
The Marine lance corporal from Vancouver was part of a holiday weekend combat operation in Helmand province, a hotbed of the insurgency.
Marines with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment worked their way through several compounds in the region around Camp Leatherneck.
“The whole idea was to see if we can interrupt some of their drug- and weapon-smuggling routes, and see if we can find some of their caches,” the Marine dog handler said.
Another goal was to “enforce our presence, to limit their ability to move around,” Buzalsky said, in reference to widening a buffer zone between the Marine base and potential Taliban attackers.
Their intention was “to deny the insurgents the ability to consolidate in certain areas where they could potentially plan attacks,” 1st Lt. Robert Kay, a platoon commander with Bravo Company, said in a Defense Department news release.
This operation, which included Afghan National Army soldiers, met with more Taliban resistance than usual.
“They like to do harassing fire — ‘Let us show up and shoot a couple of bursts at us and then run away,’ ” Buzalsky said. “That day, they seemed determined to stick around. We wound up fighting with them for quite a while.”
Marine Cpl. Joseph Scanlan wrote about the mission for a military public affairs website. He also photographed many of the Marines, including Buzalsky and his search dog, Macon.
“He detects explosives,” Buzalsky said. “Most of it is route clearing, moving in front of the patrol. We work along with the ‘sweeper'” — a combat engineer who uses a hand-held mine detector.
Macon also looks for caches of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Two of Scanlan’s images show Buzalsky and Macon on the job at a square hole that had been dug in the stony ground. It was a collapsed well; intelligence reports indicated that there might be enemy material concealed there, Buzalsky said.
“They like to hide things down in the bottom of those because it’s just too easy: put things down there and collapse the well on it. We were making sure no caches were hidden down there,” Buzalsky said.
“We get quite a few finds. We’ve found a few labs with equipment to make HME,” Buzalsky said, referring to homemade explosives. “He found quite a few of those. Other dogs have found devices.”
And still other dogs have been trained for other search missions.
“We’ve pulled a lot of narcotics out of the area,” Buzalsky said.
This is the 22-year-old’s second combat deployment. He enlisted in the Marines in 2010 after graduating from high school through the Running Start program at Clark College.
After he was wounded halfway through his first deployment in 2012, “I came back early and worked up for this deployment,” he said.
That’s when he was teamed with Macon.
“A lot of it was luck,” he said. “They were selecting people to go to a dog-handler course, and I put my name in, and luckily got picked.”
After a five-week training course in North Carolina, they did another month of training in California.
Five months into this deployment, Buzalsky and his black Labrador continue to train.
“He lives with me, and I train with him at least three hours a day. He’s an off-leash working dog, so he gets a lot of hand signals,” Buzalsky said. A lot of their work each day “is training to keep those skills up.”
The job comes with an extra burden — literally.
“Because I’m a dog handler, I have to carry enough water for me and the dog. And the dog generally drinks more water than I do,” Buzalsky said.
The dog, on the other hand, travels light: no body armor for Macon.
“Especially with the heat, the less weight I can have on him, the better. He can work longer,” Buzalsky said.
Buzalsky doesn’t know how long they will remain a team. Buzalsky said he isn’t sure when he will be sent home, or what paths he and Macon will take after that. Macon is not USMC property; as a contract working dog, he belongs to the company that trained him.
“When we go back to the States, he has to go back to the company, but I do have the possibility of adopting him. I don’t know for sure if I will, but I will try,” Buzalsky said. “It depends if they can use the dog in the future or not, how long he can keep working.”
In the meantime, that work will continue. Buzalsky acknowledges some feelings of apprehension when he sends Macon out in front of a patrol.
“You get really attached to the dogs. I love my dog,” Buzalsky said. “But at the same time, that is his job. When it comes down to it, the dog is making me and the Marines behind me safer.”