CAMP BONDSTEEL, Kosovo — Members of Camp Bondsteel's military police K-9 team are ready to return home after spending a year here, providing force protection on and off base.
Staff Sgt. Carlos Paniagua, Sgt. Tyler Leopold and Spc. Bryan Skipper are all active duty U.S. Army military working dog handlers, who deployed to Kosovo to serve on a NATO peace-support mission working for Kosovo Forces 12 Multi-National Task Force-East. Paniagua, 615th Military Police Company, Grafewoehr, Germany, has been the kennel non-commissioned officer in charge for their team.
The three outgoing K-9 handlers received Army Achievement Medals from Col. Bob Fode, deputy commander for Multi-National Task Force-East, and Command Sgt. Major Jack Cripe Jr., command sergeant major for Multi-National Task Force-East, for their deployment and exceptional work supporting Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo, during a final farewell, going-away ceremony Jan. 21, the night before they flew back to Germany.
"The service that these soldiers and their faithful companions have put forth over the past year has been invaluable," Fode said. "The K-9 team worked seamlessly alongside MNTF-E soldiers and the civilian force protection on Camp Bondsteel to provide a blanket of safety and security that we should never take for granted. Their work both on and off base only added to the efforts that we are all making here to provide a safety and security for all people in Kosovo."
Before their departure, these handlers and their canine partners showed their replacements the ropes.
A member of the 230th Military Police Co., Kaiserslautern, Germany, Skipper stated that there really isn't a training process to go through.
"We do the same thing here that we do back at our home stations," Skipper said. "We have to train our dogs daily and meet certain training requirements weekly and monthly."
"Training here is the same as anywhere else for dog handlers," Leopold added. "I'm sure the next guys will be able to pick up right where they left off. The biggest difference is having the ability to expand our training through our various counterparts and find more effective ways to train our dogs."
Staff Sgt. Frederick Ferrigno, a member of 529th Military Police Co., Heidelberg, Germany; Sgt. Brandon Hiller, 92nd Military Police Co., Schinnen, Netherlands; and Spc. Daniel Maier, who is from Paniagua's unit -- the 615th Military Police Co.-- arrived Jan. 15, ready to settle in and learn their new roles.
Visitors to Camp Bondsteel are searched when coming onto base. K-9 teams also sniff out dangers in areas used for medical and dental civil assistance programs in the local communities. Several sweeps have been conducted in specified areas outside of Camp Bondsteel.
Health and welfare inspections are another duty of this team. Any building on Camp Bondsteel, including offices or quarters, can be swept at any time they are requested. They also can search the items and bags of anyone leaving or coming onto base, as well as trucks that come onto camp.
Once the duties are completed, training continues.
Weekly, Camp Bondsteel's K-9 team meets up with other handlers and their dogs for Joint Action Training, a multi-national training exercise, which takes place at different contributing nation's bases around Kosovo. The dog handlers share various techniques, experiences, information and ideas. Joint Action Training creates bridges between different countries' K9 handlers, and also their dogs.
This training is important to develop the dog handlers' skills in detection of explosives, something that may not be readily available within their own countries. It's also important that the Kosovo police K-9 units be trained alongside KFOR in order to improve proficiency so that they can take the lead on explosive-detection missions.
"We have had more time and opportunities here to maximize our training, working together with the other K-9 handlers from other NATO countries and local police," Paniagua said.
Demonstrations have been another form of training and exercise for these dogs, not to mention the participants. Many individuals have stepped forward to offer their time and bodies to try to "catch a dog," while wearing special protection suit.
"This training exercise is everybody's favorite," Paniagua said.
Soldiers and special guests volunteer to wear the so-called "bite suit" and play "perpetrator" for the handlers and their dogs. These dogs have the chance to catch, guard, watch and escort individuals, taking commands from their handlers at all times.
Leopold, 630th Military Police Company, Schweinfurt, Germany, said he enjoyed his time working with soldiers from the National Guard and the U.S. Army Reserve at Camp Bondsteel.
"I have worked with the National Guard on my first deployment, but not nearly this much," he said. "I think the biggest challenge was to explain the best way to utilize us. K-9 teams are great assets and I think the knowledge of military working dogs has grown.
"This experience has definitely had a positive impact on our team we have found new ways of training through the work we have done with other handlers and I think it has improved the effectiveness of our team."
Though some goodbyes were sad, the friendships made will always be remembered. There were plenty of handshakes, hugs, and even a few scratches behind the ears, as everyone thanked them for their hard work and dedication throughout their time spent here.
"This has been a great experience because I have met some great soldiers from Missouri, California and now North Dakota," Leopold said.