Burial Detail

The company has set up a night perimeter. In the command platoon, a large brown dog, half Lab, half Shepard, turns round twice, heaves a sigh, settles next to its master. Both are exhausted from today’s march. Animal and handler have spent months together learning the art of finding the enemy. The dog is trusting, loyal, obedient. The handler, in spite of his sternness, loves the dog, which stares at him constantly, seeking commands, approval, love.

“Tomorrow,” he says,”The moment she picks up a scent I’ll let her loose.”

That’s good to know. We’ve never worked with K-9s before.

At first light second platoon saddles up, slips out the perimeter. The excited dog pulls at its long leather leash. Soon the grunts disappears into the lush triple canopy. The rest of company lounges about, waits for the clover leaf patrol to return.

Not ten minutes later we hear the crackle of M16s, the staccato popping of AK47s. Then silence.

Twenty minutes later the patrol returns to the perimeter.

“Gary Owens,” the point man softly calls out.

“Gary Owens,” comes the password reply.

The men trudge in, exhausted, but something is not right. The K-9 handler, head lowered, is spattered with blood. Behind him, two GIs carry the lifeless animal, trussed by its legs to a bamboo pole.

“Goddamn…” someone whispers. “Goddamn.”

A sergeant approaches the grieving handler, tells him, again, “Sorry.” That the point man heard something. Fired. Then everyone opened up.

But the grieving man is inconsolable. On the chopper back to base he sits silent near the dead thing, repeatedly strokes its lifeless head, stares at the bullet flecked fur, the still-pink tongue dangling from the slack-jawed mouth.

As we soar high above tree tops, the cool wind dries his bloodied uniform stiff.

After we land, we dig a hole for the dog, lay it to rest, as if it were human, like us.