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Trainer Rescues Dog from Fire     

"A bond is built forever - Forever and a day
Built on love - Built on trust
That's the canine way"

 Sergeant low-crawls through smoke to save his military working dog from blaze.

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga., March 16, 2006 — It was a clear, cool night at Forward Operating Base Wilson near the city of Tikrit in central Iraq.  Staff Sgt. Christopher F. McCleskey gave his canine partner, Katja, food and water and left her in their quarters after a mission. 

     He ducked into a dining hall shortly before 9 p.m. Jan. 28 for a quick bite to eat.  A half hour later, the calm shattered when an officer shouted the news:  The building McCleskey shared with his dog and 50 other military members was ablaze.  Black smoke choked the night air.  Katja was trapped.

   "I tried to run into the building, but another sergeant grabbed me and said 'no'.  I told him my dog was inside, and I had to go," McCleskey said.  The building, about 55 yards away, was a converted warehouse.

    McCleskey's first sergeant, U. S. Army 1st Sgt. Sean Bailey, stepped in, saying "You have to let him try."  The first sergeant grabbed a fire extinguisher, McCleskey handed his M-4 rifle to another military member and a life-saving mission began.

     "We low-crawled all the way to my room due to the smoke being so low,” said McCleskey.  “I couldn't see anything but the ceiling tiles on fire. “ When the sergeants reached Katja's kennel, they couldn't see the dog through the smoke.

     "I yelled for her to come to me," he said.  "She didn't move.  She was lying on the kennel floor and was non-responsive.  So I reached into her kennel, grabbed her collar and hit her just below the rib cage.  I heard her gasp for air as I pulled her out of the building.

     "By the time I got her to the road, which was about 25 yards away, she was hacking up her lungs.  I carried her around for a very long time as she still continued to hack."

     He reported the injury to the 101st Provost Marshall's Office, and within an hour, Katja's veterinarian was on the phone telling him to be ready to leave in 30 minutes.  McCleskey said he was not injured.

     "He (the vet) told me he was nine-lining us out of the area.  Nine- lining means that a soldier is hurt, and we become the priority for the air.  Military working dogs are viewed as soldiers, so if they get hurt, then we do everything in our power to get them out of action and to medical assistance fast."  Before long, a Blackhawk helicopter - vet on board - was landing.     

Katja, a 3-year-old Belgium Malinois weighing 63 pounds, is trained to attack and to detect the odor of explosives.

She and U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Christopher McCleskey are with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq assisting the Army in explosives detection. Courtesy photo

"Katja and I jumped into the Blackhawk, and we flew to Baghdad Airport," he said.  On the way, the vet gave the dog medication to help her breathe.  When they arrived at the airport, the chief surgeon for military working dogs in Iraq was waiting on the helicopter pad.  A Humvee whisked them off to the vet clinic, where Katja was given a physical and antibiotic treatment.

"The vet said all she truly needed was rest," McCleskey said.  "After a couple of days, we went to Forward Operating Base Speicher (just outside the city of Tikrit) where we did our rehabilitation, and after about a week, Katja was improving so well that we went back to FOB Wilson."

     FOB Wilson recognizes the value of the man/canine team in its mission.

     "Sergeant McCleskey has been a valuable asset to all operations he has gone on," said Bailey.  "His dedication to duty is shown every day through his constant training with his partner MW Dog Katja.  The personal expertise he brings to the job exemplifies the Air Force core values."

     The Air Force and Navy have backfilled the Army to help it complete its missions.  Since all handlers in the Defense Department are trained at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, they can do any job the other services require, McCleskey explained.  At Lackland, handlers receive training to administer to their dogs during emergencies, a life-saver the night of the fire.

     "I just reacted to what was in front of me,” he said  “I didn't even think about what was going on. When I was briefed that the fire was in our building, all I could think about was getting my dog out.  If it happened again, I wouldn't hesitate to do the same thing."    By Chrissy Zdrakas78th Air Base Wing Public Affairs  Where is Reference link?

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