He Stands Alongside America's Finest Special Operations Forces
Manny knew he was only the first rung on Zip’s ladder. He understood that his role was to identify, condition, and train dogs for their future roles in the military. It was his job to determine where they were best fit for duty, and he was exceedingly adept at it. When Manny and Zip had been together for a full year, Manny readied himself for the time to come when he would have to turn Zip over to the people who would become his partners and unit. He had trained hundreds of dogs and the separating never got easier. But saying goodbye this time would be tough.
Manny, Chloe, and Zip spent hundreds of hours together and, because of that, Zip was now highly trained and proficient. He was supremely disciplined for his duty. He could swim for great distances and remain calm in any type of aircraft. He could detect the smell of a wide variety of explosives and identify them for his partner. He was tough. He could attack on command in the blink of an eye and withdraw in the same moment. Above all, Zip was smart. The smartest Manny had ever trained. The dog had situational awareness, which was exceedingly rare. For an animal, even one trained to react to commands, to sometimes forego his own animal impulses depending on circumstance was unusual. Zip seemed to have a unique intuition for people. He could distinguish those who were genuine from those operating under false pretenses simply by the tone of their voice or demeanor. Manny was certain he would be an exceptional SEAL.
Manny took great measures to not get too close to any of his dogs. There was no association outside of training or “reward play.” Zip had slept in the kennel with the other dogs, away from off-duty contact with his humans. Manny tried to keep it all business, like he did with the other K9s.
Zip liked Manny. He had come to trust him, and he was the only “Dad” he knew. Although there were other people around throughout his training, there was no one he was closer to than Manny, except maybe Chloe. But she wasn’t the one Zip looked forward to seeing. There was no way Zip could understand he was about to leave and they would probably never see each other again. There was just something in Manny’s voice that gave him the impression that things were about to change.
Naval Amphibious Base, Little Creek, in Virginia is one of two main training headquarters for the U.S. Navy SEALs. It administers the toughest training regimen in any military. So far as Manny was concerned, those who graduated from the Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL or BUD/S program were the best combat troops in the world. Zip would fit right in.
Manny pulled the Humvee up to the series of barracks that served as the current training housing for the troops that made up SEAL Team 4. This was a tough bunch of men who had been together through a deployment in Iraq and two more in Afghanistan. The barracks that Manny parked beside quartered the first squad of the second platoon. Petty Officer First Class Ted “Boomer” Stock heard the vehicle pull up and, opening the screen door, was the first to see Manny unloading a dog from the back of the truck.
“Hey Mitchell, your new fuzzy boyfriend’s here,” Stock bellowed over his shoulder and through the barracks. As he stepped out the door toward Manny, Zip hit the blacktop.
Automatically, Zip sized up Stock, and Stock did the same.
“Kind of small, isn’t he? Why do you need such a big vehicle for such a little dog?” he said half-jokingly.
“He’ll get the job done,” Manny shot back without cracking a smile in response to the first question while ignoring the second.
Zip took a longer look at the SEAL and let his scent register. He was big—well over six feet—with broad shoulders and a shaved head that glimmered when the sun hit it. And he smelled like pickles. Zip stared at him some more. He sensed a gentle spirit.
Petty Officer Second Class Todd Mitchell stepped out of the barracks to meet the new teammate. He was trained specially as a handler and had leaped at the chance for a K9 partner.
When command had decided that most SEAL teams would be assigned at least one K9 in the units, Todd had already been a SEAL for three years. The success of the raid on Osama bin Laden and the involvement of a K9 SEAL named Cairo cemented the reputation these dogs had for considerable abilities. It was a public relations boon for the SEALs.
Historically, most of the K9 handlers were not SEALs themselves. They were MWD specialists assigned to each SEAL team. In more recent times, the direct role of dogs working with the SEAL teams and their handlers had evolved. Whereas Manny’s team were specialists at developing dogs specifically bound for the Special Forces, the expanded K9 program was a bit different for U.S. Navy SEALs, who were always on the cutting edge of military tactics and innovation. Todd had volunteered to get in on the ground floor.
Manny walked up to Mitchell and handed him Zip’s lead. “OK, let’s take him out and let him get used to you.”
Todd took the lead, and then he paused and dropped to a knee. He and Zip stared at each other for a long minute. Todd wanted to make a good first impression on Zip. He wanted him to know that he did not intend to be a “master,” and demonstrated it by lowering himself to Zip’s level. Todd wanted a partner, someone who could operate efficiently with the brothers of his SEAL team.
Dogs have an extra sense beyond sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste. It allows them, sometimes, to make a near-instant judgment about and connection with certain humans. Zip sensed it with this particular man. He was different than Manny or Chloe, and Zip wanted to learn more about him.
For the next two hours, Todd and Manny worked together with Zip on transferring the basic commands and getting him accustomed to taking orders from a different partner. Often, during these transfers, it could take a while for the animal to get it. But Manny was surprised at the synchronicity these two developed almost instantly. He wasn’t sure if he felt pleased with Zip’s skills, or just the slightest twinge of jealously.
When they finished, the three walked back to the barracks where Todd nonchalantly opened the door and motioned Zip inside with an “In you go, Boy.”
“Hey,” Manny said, stopping him. “You don’t intend to let him stay in the barracks with you–do you?”
“Why sure, Master Sergeant. Why not?”
“Because that’s against every regulation.”
“Oh, well, that’s not going to be a problem,” Todd said.
“And why is that?”
“Because we’re not going to tell anyone.”
Before they walked into the barracks, Manny stopped them one more time “I’m telling you Petty Officer, this one’s special. Take care of him and he will do the same for you.”
He handed Todd a small bag of toys and turned back to the Humvee. “He likes to catch Frisbee,” Manny said over his shoulder as he made it to the driver’s side door. He paused, hand on handle, looked back at Zip and shouted, “They’re all yours now, Boy.”
Zip trotted over to Manny and sat at his feet, looking only slightly irritated. Manny bent down and scratched Zip under the chin one last time, then hopped in the Humvee and drove off without another word. Zip trotted back to Todd.
Boomer was leaning against the barracks doorway as they approached.
“What the hell kind of a name is ‘Zip’?” he said dryly as the sound of the Humvee faded in the distance.
“What the hell kind of a name is Boomer?” Todd retorted. “Maybe we should call the dog Boomer.”
“Sorry, that’s taken. He probably couldn’t live up to it.”
The two friends chuckled and walked Zip into the barracks, holding the screen door ceremoniously for their new teammate.
The barracks was clean, remarkably clean. Zip had never spent any real time in a building that had people in it, and he certainly never slept in the same quarters with them. It appeared that these particular SEALs were going to consider him a full member of their team. They told him they expected the same discipline and order from him that they would from any other SEAL. After all, when it came time to deploy in a combat situation, he would be sleeping with them, and so in their minds he should do the same stateside. It took Zip a second for his eyes to adjust but the smells hit him instantly. There was the cleaner with that chemical scent that burned his nose. They must use a lot of it here. The smells of aftershave, chewing tobacco, dirty socks, clean socks—it was an assault on his nose. Oh, and pickles. But it was the unique smell of each man in the unit that excited him. Zip wanted to know everything about these humans. He knew Todd was to be his handler, but he didn’t know yet that they would become best friends.
Todd Mitchell grew up in the hills outside of Pittsburgh. An all-state hockey player, he went to Penn State on an athletic scholarship for two years before deciding to drop out and join the Navy. He’d always had a hard head and just couldn’t muster the academic focus he needed to complete a degree. That decision made for a big falling out with his dad. The elder Mitchell had visions of his son joining his successful law practice; maybe even taking over the business one day. It was Bob Mitchell’s dream, not Todd’s, and he just couldn’t live up to his father’s expectations anymore.
Todd married Lindsey, his high school sweetheart, right after he earned his trident. Now, they had a baby on the way. He loved the Navy as much as he loved his new family and felt an equal commitment to both.
Boomer Stock was the comedian of the outfit and the perfect foil for Todd’s headstrong, serious manner. He was also his closest friend. The man had the ability to find humor in anything and everything, even when the team found itself in extreme situations. It was his attitude that kept the team going during several desperate engagements. He, too, started a college career on an athletic scholarship (at Georgia Tech). But when a knee injury ended his football career, he ended his college career and joined the Navy. Boomer had a propensity to drink pickle juice as part of his workout routine. He was convinced that the amino acids in the juice gave him an advantage during workouts and allowed for faster muscle recovery time. Zip liked him and felt comfortable in his presence.
Senior Chief Petty Officer R.J. Robbins was their Communications Specialist and the highest ranking member of the squad. He was a supreme technophile from Seattle who had an amazing ability to fix nearly anything electrical by piecing together any components he could scrounge. A self-taught programmer and avid radio control airplane nut, he was a study in perpetual motion. When he wasn’t tinkering with the equipment, he was working out. He had developed a number of eponymous CrossFit routines that were nearly impossible to complete and was still trying to outdo himself. R.J. never wasted a minute.
One of the most valuable members of any SEAL team is the Navy Corpsman. Trained as a SEAL and specializing in trauma medicine, Eric “Old Doc” Burkich was the team’s curmudgeon. Old Doc was so tagged by the team because he was mature beyond his twenty-five years. When Todd and Zip walked into the barracks, he was deep into a manual on emergency veterinary canine care. If there was a new member on the team, Old Doc Burk was going to make sure he knew how to treat him. He always had a dip of Copenhagen in his lower lip.
Petty Officer First Class Jeff “Angel” Nakamura sat on the edge of his bunk and eyed the new team member as he entered. He was the team’s sniper and heavy weapons specialist. He was slim and incredibly adroit at concealment. If he didn’t want to be seen, no one was going to find him. Each member of the team felt an added sense of security knowing that Angel Nakamura watched over them from some unseen location.
The balance of the eight-man squad comprised three more exceptional SEALs. Petty Officer Third Class Michael “Radar” Hancock was the Technical Surveillance Specialist. Petty Officer Second Class Scott Penman was the linguistics and interrogation specialist who possessed such a remarkable ability to pick out voices and accents that he could do spot on impressions of everyone in the platoon. Lastly, Petty Officer Third Class Jim Fox was the team’s Point Man/Navigator, and the youngest member of the team at just twenty years old.
Zip paced the length of the barracks deliberately, approaching each member of his new team and memorizing their distinctive scents. He then walked over to Todd at his bunk and took a glance at the small dog bed near the foot of the bunk. Zip decided that it was not up to his standards and promptly leaped onto Todd’s rack, sprawling out and making himself right at home.
“Hey!” Todd yelled.
Zip nudged the pillow off the bunk and rolled over to his back.
“Well-trained, isn’t he?” Boomer said as the rest of the team laughed.
“You know, he does outrank you,” Old Doc Burk offered from across the room. “So maybe he deserves the bunk.”
“What’s that?” Fox sounded confused.
“Yep,” Old Doc said. “All military working dogs obtain a rank one grade higher than the handler. That way, the handler can easily be brought up on charges if there’s any sign of abuse.”
Just about then, the door burst opened and a strong tenor voice put an abrupt end to the levity.
“Petty Officer Mitchell! What is that animal doing on your rack?”
The distinctive voice belonged to Lieutenant John Kelly, troop commander. Kelly was a Naval Academy graduate and hard core all the way. The team knew him well. Not unlike Zip, he possessed a unique situational awareness and a sixth sense for danger. His tactical awareness was uncanny. He signed up for the SEALs the day after graduating from the Academy and dedicated his life to the Special Forces. Everyone in the squad had the utmost respect for Lieutenant Kelly. They all knew he had the team’s back if all hell broke loose. Kelly was a devout Roman Catholic who visited the base chapel every day, or took time to pray the rosary when in the field. At only five feet eight inches, he was compact. But he cut an imposing figure and, with only eight percent body fat, he was the best swimmer in all of SEAL Team 4.
Zip’s head popped up, too, at the sound of his voice. His ears pinned back against his head and he jumped down from Todd’s bunk to curl up on his own little bed. Zip understood right away that this was a man not to be tested.
That first night in the barracks, Zip lay quietly on his bed listening to the sounds of the conversations of the men in the squad. He loved the tones of their voices as they joked at each other’s expense. No one was spared from the good-natured banter. He was getting a sense of their loyalty to each other and was happy to be in their presence. For the first time, he felt like he was part of a pack, and he knew it was good.
Discipline, commitment, and loyalty are the primary tenets of any SEAL team. Zip had learned the structure for all of this during his time with Manny. Now it was time to become fully integrated into his new family.