In the military, it isn’t only the two-legged soldiers taking all the risks in combat. With the increased use of dogs by all branches of the military, there is also an increase in danger and loss of life for our four-legged service members. Our men in uniform not only appreciate and understand the work and effort put out by military dogs but treat their canine counterparts as fellow soldiers. And in the case of Sgt. Tom Sardo and his yellow Lab, Streaker, their service together came to an abrupt and all-too-early end.
“Every Marine is, first and foremost, a rifleman. All other conditions are secondary.” General Alfred M. Gray, USMC
When Tom Sardo joined the Marines, he spent his first five years as a harrier mechanic. And after he got out the first time, he heard the 1st Battalion 25th Marine Reserves were being deployed to Afghanistan and immediately re-upped. Due to his love of firearms, he requested the job of armorer; as an armorer he’d have the opportunity to work on the myriad weapons available to the military.
Midway through 2011, his unit was activated and flown to Camp Pendleton in California. Thanks to the limited training given to reservists, the military wanted to cram as much as possible into a four-month period. And it was then, upon his arrival, Tom was re-assigned as a dog handler. The change occurred in part because of his rank; he was a Corporal at the time. His official MOS would remain 2111 – armorer – but, much to his surprise, he was being trained and deployed as a dog handler.
At that time, the Marines were developing a new K9 program called the IED Detection Dog program; IDD. Instead of the stereotypical German and Dutch Shepherds and Belgian Malinois seen most often in the military, the IDD program utilized Labrador Retrievers. The Labs were trained for off-leash work in much the same way retrievers are used for bird and game retrieval. Working a dog off-leash offered handlers more protection if a dog inadvertently set off an explosive device.
Then-Cpl. Sardo left Camp Pendleton to spend 8 weeks in North Carolina learning the ins and outs the fledgling IDD program. He was assigned a 3-year-old yellow Lab, Streaker, and together they sweated in the hot NC sun through the height of a Southern summer. Of course, despite soaring temperatures, it was nothing compared to what the duo would face in Afghanistan. When their training time ended, man and dog returned to Camp Pendleton to complete their pre-deployment training. And on the 2nd of September, 2011, they boarded an Air Force C-17 cargo jet to begin their journey to the sandbox.
Streaker and Cpl. Sardo’s first two weeks in country at Camp Bastion were spent running drills set up by a civilian contractor from K2, Inc., the company overseeing the IDD program. When their brief in-country training ended, the handlers and their dogs were sent off to work with their various companies. The problem Cpl. Sardo ran up against was that he and the four handlers he was with were tasked with base security. That entailed using the dogs to clear thirty or more vehicles per hour, which was not what the dogs were trained to do. Clearing vehicles was not what the IDD's were meant for, but they were a new team with limited use, and it was clear leadership did not yet realize how to best utilize their training. Hoping to use the dogs as they were intended, the handlers instead approached the unit in charge of the 90-run kennel where the dogs were housed.
The unit running the kennel was a Marine Corps Combat Engineer Battalion (CEB-2) tasked with route clearance throughout the Helmand Province. In early 2011, the Helmand Province in Afghanistan was still the focus of a fair number of heated battles with insurgents, but by the time Cpl. Sardo arrived with Streaker, according to Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, a corner had been turned and attacks were declining. There was also an Army unit sharing the compound asking for the dogs and their handlers to accompany them on missions. As a result, when CEB-2 replaced CEB-1, they not only supported their own unit but the Army’s as well. Because Cpl. Sardo’s IDD group did not have any current missions, they began joining the other unit on their missions. Those missions typically consisted of fairly short Logistic runs to transport supplies to area bases and outposts.
“The Few. The proud. The Marines.” Current Marine Corps Ad Slogan
In the end, Cpl.Sardo and Streaker found themselves working with the 95th Sappers out of Hawaii, a unit that had been in Afghanistan maybe one month longer than they had. The Sappers usually ran 8-10 trucks out in front of a 50-vehicle convoy to clear any hazards, including IED’s. Cpl. Sardo typically rode in the lead truck although he ended up in the third truck back when there were Huskies leading the way. Huskies have Ground-Penetrating Radar (GPR) and are driven by a single soldier.
The first mission was uneventful and about a week long. Cpl. Sardo and Streaker cleared some random areas and roads and investigated a suspicious pipe sticking up out of the ground. It was on their second mission tragedy struck. The unit delivered supplies to a base working on rebuilding a bridge that had been blown up by the Taliban. During the mission, Cpl. Sardo and Streaker only had to leave the truck once to clear a drainage culvert, which ended up being completely clear of hazards. The Marine and his IDD were riding in the lead vehicle that day, an RG-31 Mk5, a mine-protected personnel carrier vehicle (MPV) weighing 17,000kg and boasting ballistic protection against 7.62 armour-piercing rounds. On the way back to their own base, the trucks moved at greater speeds over roads considered low-risk. During deliberate clearing, the convoy would have been going between 3 and 5 mph, but because they believed they were at an extremely low level of risk, the convoy took a hasty clearing approach and moved out around 10 to 15mph. In fact, not only was it a low-threat area but another convoy heading out from Camp Leatherneck while their own unit was heading back had just cleared it. They even passed the other convoy on their return trip.
Perhaps twenty minutes after passing the convoy that had already cleared the route, the Marine and soldiers were debating dinner prospects back on base. Their Lieutenant loved ice cream, and they were joking maybe they’d actually make it back in time for him to get some. Minutes later, there was a muffled thump as the RG-31 seemed to be hit by something, and everything and everyone inside was abruptly thrown against the ceiling. Streaker had been lying on the floor on his blow-up pad and with his smaller body mass, the force with which he was slammed into the ceiling of the truck was immense and instantly devastating. For a few seconds that felt like minutes, the MPV went into an uncontrolled skid.
“You think dogs will not be in heaven? I tell you, they will be there long before any of us.” Robert Louis Stevenson
Checking Streaker was one of the first things Cpl. Sardo did, but he knew immediately the dog was mortally wounded. Although he did not see any blood, he also could not find Streaker’s pulse, and the Lab wasn’t breathing. Cpl. Sardo tried to recall the emergency veterinary training handlers were given, but Streaker was already beyond help. Realizing the Lab was dead, Cpl. Sardo had no choice but to move on and help the men around him.
Fortunately, although they were a bit banged up, the human soldiers were all right. Cpl. Sardo opened the hatch to let more light in and threw out chem lights as an “okay” signal. The comms were down, and he tried to help another soldier get them back up. When that failed, he climbed out onto the roof to let a sergeant who was driving up know the soldiers were all right, but Streaker had been killed.
The military handles dogs KIA with respect. A helicopter was ordered to retrieve the yellow Lab’s body, and another soldier brought up a litter to transport the dog in the meantime. During that time, the soldiers moved from the destroyed RG-31 into an unharmed one. With some assistance, Cpl. Sardo moved Streaker’s body across a mine roller and onto the roof of the med truck. It was vital for the convoy to pull back without setting foot on the ground in case there were any secondary IED’s.
Once the group was safely inside the med truck, Huskies began clearing an area for the helicopter to land. Inside the med truck, the soldiers were evaluated for injuries and head trauma, but were all found to be in good health. Cpl. Sardo likened the aftermath to the fallout after a car accident and was surprised there wasn’t more damage after driving over a 70-pound IED.
“Uncommon valor was a common virtue.” Admiral Chester Nimitz, US Navy, on the incredible sacrifices made by US Marines at Iwo Jima
When the helicopter manned by Air Force Para Rescue arrived to extract them, the sun had just set. The body bag the Lab was placed in was white, not black, and seemed to glow in the moonlight. There were four soldiers involved in the blast who were loaded in along with Streaker’s body, and one of the PJ’s leaned forward to ask Cpl. Sardo a question. He wanted to know if the Lab was an American, and Cpl. Sardo replied yes, he was. The PJ reached for one of the many packs inside the helicopter and came back with an American flag. The men draped the flag over Streaker’s body, honoring the Lab’s sacrifice.
Back on base, Cpl. Sardo spent time in the hospital being watched for signs of a traumatic brain injury (TBI). People involved in an explosion often appear fine but, hours and even days later, show signs of a TBI. The Corporal was also given a few days off to recover in his room where he had a constant flow of people checking on him; not exactly conducive to resting. When he was released back to duty, he was sent to the kennels to meet with the civilian contractor with K2. Without delay or ceremony, the contractor introduced him to Clancy, a black Lab in need of a handler. Clancy would become Cpl. Sardo’s IDD for the remainder of his time in country.
A week later, there was a service held for Streaker. He was honored just as any human Marine would have been and the various handlers attended with their dogs alongside them. Cpl. Sardo attended alone and stood in the front, surrounded by his fellow handlers. Military members who were not handlers stood in back. Poems about MWD’s were read and the chaplain said a few words and prayed. Cpl. Sardo had Streaker’s collar as well as the now-folded flag that had covered his body on the flight back.
Cpl. Tom Sardo was promoted to sergeant on January 1, 2012. Sgt. Sardo did not suffer any long-term physical or mental problems as a result of the explosion. Incredibly, he persists in describing it “like a car accident,” a comparison that boggles the mind when you consider the impact of driving over a large bomb. The terrorist who planted the IED had to have done it within minutes of their arrival and managed to hide it incredibly well considering the brief window of time available.
For the remainder of his time in country, then-Cpl. Sardo worked with Clancy, and when he was sent home, Clancy was given to another handler. In photographs the pair’s easy companionship is immediately clear; the black Lab laughs into the camera while Tom, ever a Marine, looks on, serious and determined to protect.
When MWD’s or IDD's retire, they are considered equipment by the military. That means they stay wherever they are because the military won’t pay to have them flown back to the United States. However, there are a number of charities and organizations whose only function is to raise funds to get those dogs home for adoption. The military gives its own dog handlers the first chance to adopt the dogs, which is great for all involved, especially when established relationships exist. After returning stateside, Sgt. Sardo was able to adopt a different IDD, Books, who immediately became his loyal best friend. Now out of the service, Tom works with ammunition and is a welder at an aftermarket Jeep suspension company. He is also attending film school. Today, Books and Tom also spend their time with Tom’s first love: firearms.
Dogs provide unwavering love and loyalty both during and after military service. During their service, dogs save lives not only by scenting explosives and checking an endless stream of vehicles but also by providing canine companionship to their handlers and those around them. And afterwards, veterans with dogs experience a slew of positive side effects; in fact, dogs are even used with impressive success for mental health needs, including PTSD. There is a practically neverending stream of studies and evidence showing the positive impact dogs make on the lives of all of us, but especially on veterans.
The story of Tom and Streaker is a sad one, and a tale of sacrifice. Although Streaker’s life was taken by an IED rather than in a firefight, he did give his life for this country, and there is simply no greater sacrifice. We are endlessly grateful for Tom’s service as well; although he makes light of it, it is not hard to deduce the danger he was in and the ways he risked his life for this nation. Both Tom and Streaker are true patriots, and one can easily imagine Streaker watching over Tom and Clancy as the sergeant’s tour came to a close. And then, when Tom’s time in the Corps came to an end and he adopted IDD Books, Streaker undoubtedly grinned his lolling Labrador laugh and gave his doggy approval as the bond between man and dog began to take root and grow.
Author's Note: A special thanks to Sgt. Tom Sardo for his service to our country in the Marine Corps; he is truly one of the Few.
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