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Man's best friend plays key role in GWOT

Staff Sgt. Melissa Szczerbiak, 62nd Security Forces Squadron, and her Belgian Malinois, Tim, patrol Camp Stryker, Iraq, during a recent deployment. (Courtesy photo)

Staff Sgt. Melissa Szczerbiak, 62nd Security Forces Squadron, and her Belgian Malinois, Tim, patrol Camp Stryker, Iraq, during a recent deployment. (Courtesy photo)

Staff Sgt. Szczerbiak's Tim in Iraq. (Courtesy photo)

Staff Sgt. Szczerbiak's Tim in Iraq. (Courtesy photo)

MCCHORD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. -- When Airmen deploy, some may find themselves with a roommate or co-worker who may be a little rough around the edges, who doesn't quite communicate in the same dialect or may even have an unusual diet. However, they probably don't bark or bite. 

But two Airmen from the 62nd Security Forces Squadron here know all about what it's like to deploy with man's best friend as both roommate and co-worker. Staff sergeants Melissa Szczerbiak and Brian LeCloux are military working dog handlers. Both recently returned from deployments that highlight a very unique and important job in the Air Force. 

Handlers deploy and work with the Air Force's sister services, typically conducting weapons/munitions cache searches. 

The teams are a force multiplier, said Sergeant LeCloux , ensuring the safety of our brethren - be it Army, Iraqi Army or coalition forces. 

"Most importantly, being able to detect explosives before our forces enter into a structure that's unsafe," he said. 

Sergeant LeCloux was deployed to Forward Operating Base Normandy, Iraq, and ultimately went on 18 missions with Meki, a four-year-old German shepherd. 

Despite being deployed for the first time, Meki was fearless in the face of danger, said Sergeant LeCloux. 

At one point, Meki was medevaced to Balad Air Base after a shrapnel injury that would require a few stitches, but it never slowed him down. 

Military working dogs remain with their handlers unless secured, so Meki shared living quarters with Sergeant LeCloux while at the FOB. Sergeant Szczerbiak, who was deployed to Camp Stryker, Iraq, also shared quarters with her dog Tim, a five-year-old Belgian Malinois on his third deployment in two years. Sergeant Szczerbiak said the dogs there were initially kept inside another tent, but the handlers chose to keep the dogs with them, which was great for maintaining rapport. 

Establishing rapport between a handler and their dog is a critical step in the training process prior to deployment, especially considering the nature of their work, she said. 

In addition to encountering crush wire, house-borne and other improvised explosives devices during searches for weapons caches, there were other unique challenges. Sergeant Szczerbiak said they encountered stray dogs and mules and were once actually chased by cows. 

But it wasn't just "dog days" for Sergeant LeCloux and Sergeant Szczerbiak. The Airmen both said it was a rewarding experience to work with the sister services. 

"The culmination of knowledge from all of the forces there was an incredible experience by itself," Sergeant Szczerbiak said. 

One of her first missions, she said, was working with the cadaver dog teams, looking for missing Soldiers. This required additional training from Army contractors, who work with the dogs to locate human remains. 

In a memo from the Department of the Army, Sgt. Maj. Richard Gardner, 3rd Infantry Division Provost Marshal Sergeant Major at Camp Victory, Iraq, extended his appreciation for Sergeant Szczerbiak's hard work and professionalism while attached to the Multi-National Division Center's MWD program. 

"Sergeant Szczerbiak demonstrated a work ethic that made it immediately clear she understood the gravity of what the job entailed," Sergeant Major Gardner wrote. 

He added that in over 20 years of service, Sergeant Szczerbiak was "hands down the best Airman" he had ever worked with, and that her performance in support of the Global War on Terrorism set a standard for all others to emulate.