My Training is Never Complete
Training and more training—SEALs thrive on it and Lieutenant Kelly was going to ensure that his platoon would not jeopardize any operation, particularly as the first squad on base with a new four-legged team member. He was leery of having an animal in his platoon, even though he’d researched their effectiveness. He had to be sure he could trust everyone on his team, including and especially a K9.
The team’s day routinely started at 0600. Of course, R.J. led the pack by being up and into his own workout by 0500. He liked to set the standard for the team to follow, and as he rose from his bunk the morning after Zip arrived, he peered through the darkness over to Zip’s bed to see if the new guy was up. Two glowing eyes stared back at him. They looked at each other for a moment as R.J. pulled on his shorts. When he headed for the door, Zip rose from his bed, walked over to tell R.J. good morning, then turned around and headed back to his bunk.
“Not ready for me yet, eh Boy?” R.J. said as he jogged out the door.
The rest of the team rose at 0600 and headed out for morning PT before chow. Zip did the five miles with the team and sat at attention while they worked through calisthenics. When they finished, the entire squad headed for the base galley. Zip was at Todd’s side as they walked into the hall. A Petty Officer stopped them at the door.
“Just what do you think you’re doing?’ he barked.
“We’re going to chow,” Todd replied evenly.
“Not with that you’re not,” The Petty Officer said, glaring at Zip.
“THAT,” Todd said with and edge to his voice, “is a U.S. Navy SEAL assigned to the First Squad, Second Platoon of SEAL Team 4. Where we go, he goes.”
With that he pushed by, Zip in tow, determined to make his point. The Petty Officer knew better than to challenge him, instead retreating to the rear of the galley. He would just send this matter up the chain, and went to the grab the Master Chief in charge of the hall.
Master Chief Sullivan emerged from his makeshift office, wiping perspiration from his neck with a dish towel.
“Petty Officer!” the Master Chief bellowed as he marched toward them. “Where do you get off breaking regulations by bringing that animal into my galley?”
By now, the rest of the squad had filed in and noticed that a situation was starting to develop. They all knew that Todd was not going to back down from this. He didn’t like to be challenged, especially by some “cookie.”
Just then Boomer piped up, “Can’t you see Master Chief? This is a new experimental gilly suit. This is actually Seaman Zipster. Had you fooled, didn’t he?”
Sullivan wasn’t in the mood this morning and he didn’t like being played for a fool by a bunch of smart-ass elitists.
“Get him out!”
No one moved. Todd was in the wrong and knew that he couldn’t possibly win. But he didn’t care.
As the standoff continued and Todd inched closer and closer to landing himself into a severe disciplinary situation, Lieutenant Kelly appeared from nowhere.
“What the hell is going on in here?” Kelly asked. He was stern, but remarkably calm.
“Sir,” Sullivan said with very little respect in his voice, “This situation is a clear breach of Navy regs. I have worked with these animals before and they are never allowed in the galley. Your Petty Officer here knows it but seems to have his own ideas about how the Navy works.”
“Lieutenant,” Todd began, “everything about this is irregular. This is a relatively new program and we need to have these dogs close to us at all times. I have been assigned to develop this one and I need to see what he is capable of and where and if he might break. I can’t make a proper assessment of his capabilities and limitations if I’m continually forced to comply with these ‘regulations of convenience’, Sir.”
Lieutenant Kelly took Sullivan aside. “Master Chief, I know this is not in keeping with normal Navy regulations and I know you are aware of our unique assignments. You are welcome to communicate this through channels and I encourage you to make a proper report. However, at this time, I intend to keep my team together so that they become the well-oiled machine I expect them to be.”
“Very well, Lieutenant. It’s your ass. Don’t expect me to cover for your boys. Anyway, I don’t have food here for him. We were never informed.”
“Understood Master Chief,” Kelly said, abruptly spinning away. Then he approached Todd and Zip.
“Look Mitchell, I am sticking my neck out for you here and I really don’t appreciate this self-righteous defiance that’s already made you infamous on this base. You’re not doing yourself or that dog any favors by always trying to buck the system. Now, there’s no food here for him so I want you to get him something to hold him over for today. Get off the base tonight and get him enough food to last until we can get it properly requisitioned.”
“Yes Sir,” Todd said quietly.
“Take the squad and go to the aft table on the port side—and no more incidents.”
Todd took Zip back as ordered and found him a bowlful of eggs, sausage, and rice with an additional bowl of water. He made sure Zip stayed in place while they and the rest of the squad ate quickly, then quietly made their way out of the galley.
John Kelly knew how to work a system and thereafter Todd was able to take Zip into the dining facility without further incident. Whatever regulation they were violating was tacitly ignored, much to Master Chief Sullivan’s chagrin.
The balance of the day was spent drilling urban warfare and the sweeping and clearing of buildings. Lieutenant Kelly wanted to see how Zip interacted with the team and how he followed orders. He was surprised at how efficient Zip was, having had no experience working with any of these people before. Zip held his position as doors were wired and blown off their hinges. When a flash bang grenade was thrown into a space, he knew not to chase after it. He had been trained to lower his head and turn it aside when such a device was thrown into a room, and then wait for the command to enter. When entering a room, he immediately responded to orders to search for people, weapons, or explosives. The team repeated these entries for the rest of the afternoon until Kelly was comfortable that their performance was replicable and that Zip had the discipline necessary for the task.
The team finished drilling at 1600 and cleaned up their gear. Boomer, Todd, and Zip went off base for a quick dog chow run, picking up the food Kelly had specified. When they returned to base, there was still quite a bit of daylight left.
“Hey Boomer!” Todd yelled. “Let’s take Zip over to Tarralton Park and see what he can do with the Frisbee before the sun goes down.”
Todd grabbed the red disc and as soon as Zip caught sight of it, he was up with eyes focused and ears at attention. The three jumped into Todd’s Jeep Wrangler and Zip instantly commandeered the front passenger seat.
“Not gonna happen, Fuzz Butt,” Boomer said and pushed him off the seat.
Zip moved off and to the back, but not without first shooting Boomer what could only be described as a glare of indignation.
“Hey! He’s a pretentious A-Hole, just like you,” Boomer joked as they drove off to the park. “You two are going to get along great!”
Tarralton Park was just on the edge of the base and had a series of baseball fields with a large open area in the middle. There were some others milling around, enjoying the park, and a few people were walking their dogs. But Zip took little notice of anything but the Frisbee under Todd’s arm. They walked to the edge of the field and Todd took Zip off his lead. Zip spun in front of him in excitement, then stopped and stared intently at the Frisbee. Todd snapped his wrist and the disc sailed in the calmness of the early evening air. Zip whipped himself around and was off after the disc like a rocket. Todd made a good throw and the Frisbee floated about ten feet off the ground.
“Holy Cow, look at him go!” Boomer exclaimed.
Zip kept his eyes on the Frisbee the entire time it was aloft. When he bolted from Todd’s feet, the disc was about twenty yards ahead of him, but he quickly closed the distance in a few strides. As the Frisbee slowed down and started to drift towards the ground, Zip didn’t wait for it to land. He pulled his front paws into his chest and pushed off with his strong back legs, snatching it from the air.
“Man, can he fly!” Todd said.
“For sure! You guys can have another career doing halftime shows when you get out.”
The three spent the rest of the available daylight chasing the Frisbee and when they couldn’t see it against the sky anymore they headed directly back to the barracks. Zip was spent. He slurped down a full bowl of water and jumped into Todd’s bunk for his night’s rest. Todd let him go and gave him a pat. Then he and the team went to the Time Out Sports Bar for some wings, a couple of beers, and to review the day. Todd wanted to hear what they thought of Zip’s performance. To a man, the feedback was positive. Each of them was impressed with how quickly Zip had assimilated. When they got back to the barracks, Todd shooed Zip off his rack and took him out one last time.
“You did OK, Boy. You did real well,” Todd said as they walked in the dark. And the squad called it a day.
SEAL training can last weeks or months. On the weekends, the team split up and went to their own off-base housing. Todd and Lindsey had kept a small one-bedroom apartment not far from base, but as her pregnancy progressed they decided that Lindsey would go back home to Pittsburgh to be near both of their families. Right before Zip had arrived, Lindsey moved to her grandparents’ place. They owned and operated a small dairy farm just outside Burgettstown, PA. There was an additional small house on the farm and they were close to an excellent network of hospitals in the area. Todd felt better having her near family. But this meant Zip and Todd had to “batch” it on the weekends. They would go back to the apartment, where Zip made himself right at home. No piece of furniture was off limits, no matter how hard Todd tried. Todd was baffled by how disciplined this dog could be when it was time to work, but what an obstinate slob he was off duty.
The training regimen went on for another month. Lieutenant Kelly kept pushing the limits to integrate Zip into the unit. He worked out complex drills to see how Zip and the team would adjust. When checking for improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, Kelly would place secondary devices and trip wires on the path to see if Zip could detect them and to ensure he wouldn’t inadvertently detonate a bomb. He mixed up the types of explosives to see if he could detect the differences. Later, they put Zip in the air to see how he could handle the fast rope.
In every drill, Zip appeared to adapt and in so doing, prove his worth. Sometimes, Lieutenant Kelly thought that Todd might be cheating the system and giving Zip clues or otherwise tipping him off. Slowly, Kelly started to entertain the possibility that Zip really was that good.
Near the end of the month, the team was scheduled to do a HALO jump. HALO stands for High Altitude, Low Opening. The SEALs would jump with parachutes from an altitude so high that oxygen was required, often from greater than twenty thousand feet, then freefall until opening the chute at an altitude of less than a thousand feet. The team was hesitant to let Todd and Zip make this kind of jump. There were few SEALs who had ever done it with a dog strapped to their stomach, and it was a dangerous maneuver under the best of circumstances. Two days before the jump, Todd spent time getting Zip used to the K9 oxygen mask he would have to wear. They worked on having Zip strapped to him and still being able to reach his ripcord and secondary cord. Zip had to wear the hated “doggles” and continued to push them off every chance he had.
On the day of the jump, Lieutenant Kelly was still hesitant about letting the team go up with a dog, but Todd assured him that both he and Zip were ready. The team loaded into the adapted C160 Cargo aircraft for the jump and Zip trotted up the ramp by Todd’s side. As the plane lifted off, Zip felt that now familiar pain in his ears but soon acclimated to the altitude. The aircraft lifted higher above the clouds and the team was given the indication to go on oxygen. Todd fitted Zip’s mask first and then his own. They all went through their final equipment check. As they approached the drop zone, Fox and Penman helped strap Zip to Todd. When everything was set, the back of the aircraft opened and the coldest slap of wind he’d ever felt hit Zip in the face. His body stiffened and Todd felt his muscles contract. The team moved into position and when the red light went green, Fox flew out the door, followed by Radar. They would be the first on the ground, and would mark the landing area for the rest of the team.
The remaining members of the team filed out of the plane in short order, until it was just Zip and Todd.
“Steady, Boy,” he said, “we got this.”
And then they were falling. The sound of the engines subsided quickly and all that was left was the whoosh of cold, rushing wind. Zip remained glued to Todd, and Todd could feel him panting as they plummeted toward the ground. Todd wanted to give him a reassuring hug, but he had work to do to ensure they remained stable through the freefall, and within close proximity of the rest of the team. As they neared the ground, Todd could see Fox and Penman’s open chutes, and then watched them hit the ground. Quickly, green smoke marked the landing area. Todd steered them toward the smoke. He quickly checked his altimeter—900 feet. He pulled the ripcord. The sudden jolt was fierce. He and Zip had been falling at a rate of nearly 120 miles per hour when their descent was broken and slowed to twenty. Zip wasn’t ready for it and the extreme deceleration knocked the wind out of him. When he and Todd hit the ground, he couldn’t move, paralyzed by the lack of air caused by the sudden contraction of his diaphragm. Todd immediately knew something was wrong, disconnected his chute, and moved Zip to a prone position. Doc Burk saw what was going on and was there before Todd had a chance to call out for help.
“Doc, what is it?”
What had he done? Did he not check Zip’s oxygen? Was there a problem with the harness?
“Give him a second,” Doc answered dryly.
The team gathered around, staring at Zip and Doc. Doc grabbed Zip around the chest and sat with him between his legs. Zip was conscious but frozen. Doc gently began to squeeze Zip’s chest to make his diaphragm relax. Soon, Zip felt the air flow back to his lungs, and he began to move his legs and started to pant. Everyone on the team breathed with him.
Lieutenant Kelly observed the scene from a distance. His team had lost focus. They were watching a dog rather than deploying and securing the drop zone. R.J. was the first to come to his senses.
“Angel! Get to that ridge and check for movement,” R.J. barked as he unpacked his radio. “Fox, get over here and help me establish comms.”
He looked over at Lieutenant Kelly, realizing that he had made a critical mistake. This was all too little, too late. In a real situation the delay could jeopardize the team and mission.
In the past, military animals were pieces of equipment, nothing more. Since the time of the cavalry when thousands of horses were killed during charges or mules sacrificed in dangerous work, the U.S. armed forces realized that emotional attachments to animals had to be minimized. Many MWDs had been abandoned in Vietnam. Even if the attitudes were beginning to change, Kelly’s team, and Todd Mitchell in particular, had developed an unhealthy fondness for a piece of military equipment. This was a dilemma for Lieutenant John Kelly. He liked that fur-ball too.