BAGHDAD, Iraq - On dangerous missions, Sgt. Darren Smith straps a bulletproof vest around the furry chest of his partner, a bomb sniffing dog named Kastor.
Patrols and checkpoints in Iraq have become so risky that the U.S. Army is issuing bulletproof vests, not just to its soldiers, but also to bomb sniffing dogs to protect them too from roadside bombs and drive-by shootings.
"We need to protect our dogs just like we protect our people," said Staff Sgt. Jarrod Zaleski, the Army kennel master in Iraq. "This is still considered a war situation."
The U.S. Army has some 30 dogs in Iraq, guarding bases and checking cars for explosives. Zaleski says the dogs have uncovered car bombs and have such sensitive noses that one was able to smell an ammunition clip in a woman's pocketbook.
With violence escalating, the Army shipped vests for all of its dogs to Iraq about two weeks ago. War dogs in Afghanistan already have the vests. Soldiers have worn vests since the start of the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
"Anything we can do to keep him safe is well worth it," said Smith, a military policeman who searches buildings and works at checkpoints with Kastor, a red and yellow Belgian Malinois, a dog that looks like a small German Shepherd.
Smith and Kastor man checkpoints near the U.S. headquarters in Baghdad and sometimes are sent out to other areas of Baghdad that are potentially more dangerous. For security reasons, Smith would not say when he puts the vest of Kastor.
The tan and green camouflage vest covers Kastor's body, leaving only his head, neck and his hind legs exposed.
Zaleski said no dogs have been killed in Iraq although several have suffered injuries to their paws while walking through debris or shattered glass.
On some missions the dogs are now equipped with padded boots to protect their paws from getting cut up.
"Someone just needs to come up with a helmet for dogs and we'd be good," quipped Zaleski.
Keeping the dogs safe is important.
The dogs are needed to sniff out explosives and their keen sense of hearing can detect insurgents near bases long before Army sentries hear them.
The U.S. Army has been using dogs since World War II. Hundreds were killed in Vietnam while on patrols or guarding bases.
The dogs were so effective in sniffing out bombs and contraband in Afghanistan and in keeping people out of U.S. bases that one warlord put a $10,000 bounty on the dogs, said Sgt. Herman Haynes, of the 89th MP Battalion, who served in Afghanistan.
Training a dog costs about $50,000, Zaleski said which is one reason why protecting them is critical.
Five years ago, dog vests weighed some 15 pounds and were too heavy to be practical in most situations. With new technology, vest are now about half that weight.
The vest are made of Kevlar and protect dogs from shrapnel and handgun bullets.
Vests that soldiers wear are similar but they also have ceramic plates in the front and back that can stop high caliber rifle bullets. Zaleski said the dog vests would be too heavy with ceramic plates.
Dog vests cost about $1,200 and most of the animals don't like them.
Smith, who is from the 95th Military Police Battalion, said he first put a vest on Kastor for just a few minutes day to try and get him use to it. Kastor, who weighs 55 pounds, still has problems walking in the heavy vest.
"He's still a little clumsy on his feet, but he's getting better," said Smith as he scratched Kastor's neck to keep him calm.
Dog vests, just like vests for people, also keep the heat in. Soldiers sweat so heavily in Baghdad's 100 degree heat that they need to constantly drink.
Army dogs - mostly Malinois and German Shepherds - are even more uncomfortable.
"Imagine wearing a fur coat in 100 degree heat. The work they can do is limited," Zaleski said.
Sound Off...What do you think?
Join the discussion.
Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.