Tonic walks steadily ahead. Sand and rubble hot beneath his paws. The men in their green and brown cloth and their war poles in and under arm. Tonic’s harness and pouches itch at his fur and the heat makes him want to pant. My boys are scared, he thinks, hearing each soldier’s breath as they watch and watch for signs of the earth being uprooted and eye every scrap of junk on the dirt road. Cans, containers, drink bottles. Things the man pack knows may hide boom strings to blow man, canine and warrior vehicles limb from limb. But Tonic smells nothing suspicious. His right ear twitches at the sound of a louder patter when one war fellow’s foot breaks out of rank, turning to look behind him.
It’s been a quiet month, no run-ins. No boom strings triggered. Just patrols with the man pack.
Corporal Daemon Morris, Tonic’s handler in the veterinary corps is close behind. Tonic feels safer for knowing he’s there and knows Corporal Morris and the rest of the man pack feel safer with Tonic there too. It’s a fact Tonic is proud of and for which he holds his head high.
When Tonic’s not on patrol he mostly stays in or by his kennel. The man pack might want to pet him and Tonic might enjoy a tug at his fur, a scratch under the ear or to play fetch like any other dog, but Tonic is a soldier and doesn’t think on such things. He stays by his kennel, unless called by Corporal Morris for a walk around the camp, or to go out on patrol.
Up ahead the man pack spots something that startles it. ‘A line of stones’ blurts Private Caren Jenkins. Tonic has noticed that when Private Jenkins speaks it sometimes sends an unusual shiver down his spine. Tonic doesn’t know why this happens but somewhere deep in the back of his mind is the memory of a lady just like private Caren Jenkins who used to take him out for walks and scratch him under his ear just the way he likes.
The man pack stops and Tonic stops with them. A row of stones can be a marker left by the enemy for their own man packs, to show that a boom-string is near. But Tonic doesn’t detect anything suspicious. He puts his nose to the ground then lifts it to the air, takes several quick sniffs and one long inhale that makes his nostrils flair. He detects the slightest smell of iron and an extra amount of salt in the air. ‘Tonic’ corporal Morris hisses. He holds Tonic’s face in his hands. ‘What do you smell boy?’ Tonic’s tongue drops out for a brief pant. He looks up into Corporal Morris’s eyes. Sweat roles down his cheek. Tonic is calm. The extra smell of salt in the air is from the increase in sweat of the man pack and the iron from their increased blood pressure. Tonic lets out an affectionate groan. He’s telling Corporal Morris, it’s all right we can go, let me do my job. Morris let’s go, and Tonic bounds on. ‘Go on boy’ says Corporal Morris.
Tonic is a black lab retriever High Assurance Search Dog on his fourth tour in Afghanistan. Soldiers come and go, the man pack changes, the handlers change too but Corporal Morris has remained Tonic’s constant for the whole of his 4th tour. Tonic trusts Corporal Morris and Corporal Morris trusts Tonic.
Morris loosens the lead and Tonic bounds on. Through the rubble and over the line of stones, knocking one with his sniffing nose. Clear of the stones, and a few steps on, Tonic stops and looks back at the man pack. Then as if to say there’s nothing to fear he wags his tail to show it’s clear. The man pack wade through, smiling as they step over the stones and Tonic, faithful Tonic bounds on ahead.
Then suddenly tonic stops, his ear twitches and he drops to the ground. Corporal Morris raises his arm, fist clenched. The man pack stops. Tonic has found something. There, close where Tonic lay impossible to see was something deep below the sand. Not for man or dog but for the wheels of war machines to trigger and to blow apart several men at once.
That was what Tonic found. You couldn’t see it, but it was there. Buried deep in the ground, it was the biggest discovery of an explosive by an animal. Tonic has done his job well today. He’ll take the scratch under the ear, the pat on the back and a good tug at his fur.