FORWARD OPERATING BASE PASAB, Afghanistan – It's 6 p.m., and Chrach, a military working dog whose name is pronounced “Crash,” is anticipating his evening meal.
His handler has been feeding him twice daily for more than a year, since the two became a team, and she is used to this routine -- but not because she is his handler.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Jessie Johnson, a military working dog handler assigned here with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division canine unit, said she was born into an "animal house" and had all of the responsibilities of training the animals, playing with them, taking them to the vet and feeding them.
Some people have dogs for protection, for comfort or for show. But dogs and horses were an important part of their upbringing in rural Pennsylvania for Johnson and her younger sister while they were being raised by a single parent.
"I always made sure my daughters treated animals kindly and [understood] the importance of taking care of the animals," said Robin Keller, Johnson's mother, who often worked two full-time jobs so her daughters could enjoy a comfortable life. Johnson's grandparents lived nearby and were able to help out. Still, the kids had a great deal of responsibility and independence.
"At a really young age, my sister and I learned to take care of the animals and each other," Johnson said.
With this much exposure to animals, it may have seemed fitting for Johnson to become a dog handler when she joined the military. However, back then it was not a seamless process. Her love of dogs would not be enough alone, she noted -- if it were, more people would be canine handlers. Her quest involved another homegrown value she learned from her mother.
"When you start something, you should always finish it," Keller said, adding that she instilled this value in her daughters, along with the notion that there was nothing they couldn't accomplish so long as they set their minds on doing it, and doing it well from beginning to end.
The start of Johnson's canine career didn't officially take place until five years after she joined the Air Force. Because of her long-time yearning to work with a K-9 team, she made it a point to immerse herself in their world as much as she could while she worked as a security forces journeyman at the 820th Security Forces Squadron, Moody Air Force Base, Ga.
She said she took the initiative to visit the kennels and introduced herself as someone interested in joining the team and willing to stay involved regularly with all aspects of caring for the dogs.
Being a part of the feeding, grooming and training for about 20 dogs was nothing new for her, she said, albeit it involved a few more paws and wagging tails then she was used to all at once. But there was one task she had to do to prove she could truly become a dog handler, she said, one that simply not all can do.
"The big part was going out and catching the dogs, putting on the ‘bite suit’ and letting them bite me, and making sure I was comfortable with that," she said.
When her unit deployed, Johnson was selected to go out on patrols with the K-9 teams. The experiences solidified her interest and determination to become a dog handler, she said.
"I got to see how [the dogs] led the troops and how everyone pretty much relied on their dogs to walk safely down a roadway," she added, recalling how amazed she was by this and that right then, she knew this was the job for her.
Soon after, she submitted an application package that included letters, documentation of volunteer hours, and she was accepted.
Johnson and Chrach often are called on as a top team for missions here, but Air Force Master Sgt. Jantzen Duran, kennel master and noncommissioned officer in charge of the canine teams here, said he knew this before they arrived.
"I attended training with [Johnson] prior to our deployment and she was by far the best handler of 13 dog teams there," he said. "She was awarded Top Dog Award not only for her actions as a handler, but also her actions as an NCO. Being deployed with mostly Army, I couldn't ask for a better NCO to represent the Air Force."
At her home station at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., Johnson’s leadership quickly noticed her strong character and capitalized on it.
"Jessie's unique personality and great attitude made her stand out amongst her peers," said Air Force Capt. Tony Short, 56th Security Forces Squadron operations officer, adding that from the beginning it was evident with a little pushing and quality training, Johnson would become one of the best handlers in the unit.
"In the first months, she was eager to learn and excelled," he said, noting that she moved through the responsibilities and roles of being a new handler to an experienced one quickly.
But whether they’re new to the job or experienced, Johnson said, handlers aren't the only ones doing the schooling.
"The dogs teach you something every day," she said. "There is never a time you can say you've taught a dog everything or that a handler knows everything. I learn every day."
With a hearty smile, Johnson said the K-9 world is like no other, and that she enjoys the challenges and the camaraderie that come with the job.
"I've never been so happy to want to go to work," she said.