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Around The Fleet

Man's Best Friend

Navy K-9 warrior talks about the bonds of war

They deployed together. Max and Salazar were a team. Though war brought with it incredible lows, these two stood side by side, Salazar on two legs, and Max on four.

Master-at-Arms 1st Class (IDW) Fabian Salazar, a native of El Paso, Texas, is a military working dog handler assigned to Naval Station Everett - and Max saved his life.

It was in 2011 that Salazar volunteered for an Individual Augmentee (IA) deployment to Afghanistan. Max was only 3 years old and new to the unit. With very little time to bond, the union was about to be tested. Salazar and Max were sent to an Army infantry unit in the Kandahar Province.

"We didn't have a lot of time, so we had to hurry up our bond. This is less than ideal, because you're going to be asking a lot of a dog that doesn't know you," said Salazar. "We didn't have the time we needed to build that strong, trusting relationship before we deployed, so we had to do it in Afghanistan."

After about a month in Afghanistan, Max and Salazar's bond began to take shape. Especially after grueling overnight and multi-day missions in hostile territory, Salazar began to trust Max completely, and felt that the dog trusted him as well.

"As dog handlers, we go ahead of the infantry, look for IEDs and clear a safe path," said Salazar. "Whether we're going into compounds, or just road clearing, we're there to make sure that the guy behind us gets home safely."

Explosive detection in front of his unit was Salazar's primary job while in Afghanistan. If Max sniffed out an IED, he would alert Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) to investigate. From there, EOD would either disable the device or the unit would find an alternate route.

Salazar credits Max with saving many lives.

"In the end, the dogs don't know what they do for us and how important it is. All they're working for is a little toy, love and affection. They never know that they're actually saving lives."

As their deployment continued, Salazar volunteered for several dangerous missions into volatile regions of Afghanistan.

"The first time we took contact from the enemy has always stood out in my mind," said Salazar. "Max didn't panic, we didn't panic. We just hunkered down and waited for the all clear. I'll always remember that day."

This incident was only the first of many. Salazar recalled many instances in which he had to engage in combat with Max always loyally remaining by his side. He recounted one mission - a large-scale incursion into a Taliban compound that lasted several hours.

After the door of the compound was broken down, Salazar volunteered to go first into the building. As dog and handler searched the compound, Max discovered an IED booby trap concealed around a corner.

Max's impeccable sense of smell undoubtedly saved lives that day, said Salazar.
"I was very proud to say that everyone came home safe whenever I led the way," said Salazar. "But I know it wasn't me. It was Max; he was the one who was doing all the work."
Navy Photo

Master-at-Arms 1st Class (IDW) Fabian Salazar rests with his military working dog Max during an Individual Augmentee (IA) deployment to Afghanistan in 2011.

And it was Max who Salazar credits with saving his life during one mission in particular.

Salazar volunteered for a mission to a village known for being a hot zone of Taliban activity. As his unit infiltrated the town on foot, they came under heavy small arms fire. Eventually, Salazar found himself and his squad pinned down in a field, surrounded by walls crawling with Taliban fighters.

As Salazar engaged targets in front of him, Max suddenly pulled his leash rearward. Feeling the sudden movement, Salazar turned his attention behind him, spotting a Taliban gunman climbing a wall to their rear. Salazar spun and threw his body protectively over Max, firing his weapon and yelling out the target's position at the same time.

"He was not only our asset for explosive protection. He was my partner," said Salazar. "My dog's got to stay safe. That's why I laid my body across him while I shot."

Salazar credited Max with keeping him and other service members safe that day.
"Max is what caused me to turn around. He saved our lives that day," said Salazar. "I, and my whole unit, was extremely grateful."

Salazar received the Army Commendation Medal with Valor for his actions that day. In addition to his commendation, Salazar also received a combat promotion to first class petty officer.

But as time wore on, Salazar came to see just how alike he and Max really were. The further along in the deployment they got, the more changes he began seeing in his dog.

"As time went on, we saw more and more combat. I could see it was wearing him down," said Salazar.

Toward the end of the deployment, the in-and-out grind of combat began to have a great effect on Max, as well as Salazar. He recalled seeing a difference in how Max reacted when he began to put on his Kevlar battle gear and ready his gun. It seemed like the dog knew, ahead of time, that they were heading into danger. Near the end of deployment, Salazar and Max went on fewer and fewer missions.

After completing his deployment, Salazar returned to Everett, where he took the position of military working dog kennel supervisor.

Max is still active duty protecting NSE. Upon his return, he was assigned a new handler. Though Salazar was saddened to no longer be his handler, he was very pleased to be able to see Max at work every day.

"We aren't a team anymore, but we'll always have that bond. I trusted him with my life for a long time, and he earned every bit of that trust," he said. "He saved my life and many others. I'll never forget that."
Navy Photo

Military working dog Max and his handler Master-at-Arms 1st Class (IDW) Fabian Salazar deployed to Afghanistan in 2011, Max's primary responsibility during the deployment was explosive detection.