By Amanda Kim Stairrett
Killeen Daily Herald
FORT HOOD - Sgt. 1st Class Coffee got excited as she heard footsteps and the voices of two approaching toddlers calling out her name.
Her toenails clicked and scraped on the shiny cement floor as she jumped on the gate and encouraged the group closer with her whimpers. She couldn't keep still as her partner, Staff Sgt. James Bennett, tried to fasten her collar.
The toddlers surrounded her and reached out to pat her chocolate fur. She welcomed them with a wet nose to the face and tail thumps to the torso.
After some struggling, Bennett put on the collar and hooked it to a small leather leash. Coffee was the first one out the door and into the brisk afternoon air. She lives in a kennel at Fort Hood with others like her. She works daily with Bennett, but visits from his twin toddlers, Tallon and Trinity, mean even more fun than usual.
Sgt. 1st Class Coffee K248 and Staff Sgt. James Bennett are assigned to the 89th Military Police Brigade's 178th Military Police Detachment. They are one of the detachment's 36 military working dog teams, said Staff Sgt. Christina
Billingsley, a plans and training noncommissioned officer.
Coffee will turn 7 in April and is a specialized search dog. She is trained to detect explosives used to make roadside bombs.
Coffee and Bennett will soon deploy to Afghanistan. This is Bennett's third deployment and Coffee's second.
The two have been partners for almost five years and Bennett considers his partner family. His wife, Lindsay; the twins; and their two German Shepherd/Lab mixes and Rottweiler do, too.
Bennett has worked with dogs since he was a child growing up in Michigan and wouldn't trade his job for the world, he said Friday.
Bennett is thankful he has an Army job with which his family can get involved. The twins are young, but they can play a part and have a passion for dogs like him, he said.
Deploying with a dog
Bennett doesn't know where in Afghanistan he'll be stationed or with what unit he'll work. He just knows he's deploying with his best friend.
Living conditions for military working dog teams, which deploy one by one, can vary once they get in theater. If they are stationed at a larger forward operating base, there may be a kennel facility, Bennett said. They could also be attached to a unit at a remote outpost and live in tents.
Coffee and Bennett were last deployed with a Special Forces unit in the "middle of nowhere," Bennett said. The site had buildings, though, and the two shared a room.
Dog handlers work directly with commanders of the units to which they are attached. While soldiers in sections or platoons may not go on every mission, working dog teams typically do.
That can be a challenge because dogs, just like people, have bad days. Unlike soldiers, commanders can't force a dog to perform, Bennett said. Dogs don't care about Article 15s, he said with a smile.
Just like soldiers
Military working dogs can also experience the same health issues as soldiers in combat. Dogs can get post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, Bennett said. They go through the same things as soldiers, Billingsley said.
"Dogs have their own issues," she added.
The Army even has rehabilitation for dogs who suffer from PTSD.
Detecting PTSD dogs is easy for handlers because they work closely with their dog partners and can sense when something is wrong. Bennett is clearly proud of his bond with Coffee.
He calls her his guardian angel.
"There's only one reason I come home alive," he said.
Not only is Coffee's job keeping her partner safe, but protecting the soldiers with whom they work. There's only one reason they come home alive, too, Bennett said.
He and Billingsley, who has worked with a dog, but will deploy soon by herself to Afghanistan to oversee teams there, joked that handlers were just toy holders.
"They do the work," Billingsley said of the dogs.
She misses being a handler, she said.
A piece of home
Though the team's job is to detect explosives, Bennett knows that his partner's presence piques the public's and other troops' curiosity. While at home, the two often participate in demonstrations at local events. While deployed, Coffee has been known to make appearances at local combat support hospitals to visit wounded or sick troops.
Coffee's appearance gains her a lot of fans. She is an affectionate and huggable chocolate Lab with thick coffee-brown fur. She's appreciative of a squeaky tennis ball, especially if someone gives it a toss so she can chase it down. She's like a kid, Bennett said.
Despite Coffee's kind nature, Bennett and Billingsley stressed the importance - requirement, really - that a person ask a handler before approaching any working dog. Every dog is different, Bennett said.
Bennett enjoys seeing deployed soldiers react to Coffee. He sees their burden lifted for a bit as they are reminded of home by Coffee's company. Bennett said that while deployed, simple tasks like visiting the base's post exchange could take an extra hour because they stopped by curious soldiers every 10 feet.
Ready to go
Coffee and Bennett are set to deploy the first week of January.
Those who know Coffee said she can't wait to go. While at Fort Hood, Coffee has to live in the on-post kennels with the other dogs. While deployed, she gets to stay by Bennett's side every day. She doesn't consider it work, Bennett said as he watched the twins toss a slobbery, grass-covered tennis ball for Coffee to chase. To her, it's all about playing and having fun.
Coffee will be 8 years old when she and Bennett return from Afghanistan. That's 45 in dog years.
"Me and her have one more in us," Bennett said.
Dogs can serve up to 12 years in the military, according to information from the Defense Department.
"She prefers to deploy," Lindsay said as she watched her husband, Coffee and the twins play. "She doesn't like being stateside."
For more on this story, read next week's Fort Hood Herald.