Marine Sgt. Kenneth Fischer never heard the blast. One second he was on patrol with his drug-sniffing dog, and the next he found himself down on his chest, with most of his right calf gone and a large, V-shaped piece of shrapnel under his vest and inside his right shoulder. Drak, his Belgian Malinois, was on the ground, too, just above Kenneth’s head.
Just in case you needed another reason not to like them, Fischer believes the Taliban may have purposely targeted his dog. On a DEA patrol during their first tour, Drak discovered a stash of Taliban heroin worth, by the DEA officer’s estimate, over a million dollars. Kenneth told me all of this over the course of a long brunch at The Palazzo in Las Vegas. We were both there for the Salute Our Troops event — he, as a wounded warrior, and me there as a witness.
Fischer will never know if there was an actual bounty on Drak, but the two of them “got blown up,” as he puts it, during a routine show-of-force patrol in Sangin last September. An ordinary looking Toyota Corolla, loaded with a couple hundred pounds of explosives, was driving towards them like any other car — until the Jihadi driver got close in and hit the detonator.
After taking his own physical inventory and making sure everything — well, most everything — was all where it was supposed to be, Kenneth checked on Drak. “I reached my hand up his leg, and when I got to his hip, I felt my hand slip inside,” he says. Drak whined the way a hurt dog does, to beg master to please stop. That’s about when the sergeant noticed the large pool of blood from his shoulder wound, and started calling for a corpsman.
Drak and Fischer were medivaced out on the same Blackhawk, but the dog was bleeding out. Drak was attended by a well-meaning Marine who had no rescue training for animals — he simply didn’t know what to do. In a bit of good luck, Kenneth’s best friend, Sgt. Mark Behl, was on the flight. Behl is also a dog handler, and told Kenneth that Drak would be OK, then took over Drak’s treatment. Fischer, his eardrums blown out and the chopper blades thumping, could make out nothing except “dog” and “OK.” But that was enough.
I ask him about the welcome he and the other troops have received here at The Palazzo. “It’s overwhelming… all those people… I get goosebumps on my arms, thinking about it.” He shows me the goosebumps, and they’re real. “We all signed up in middle of a war. We knew what we were getting into — nobody owes us anything. A handshake and a thank you would’ve been more than enough. Instead we got all of this,” he says, gesturing to the VIP suite set up just for the troops.
Kenneth and Drak were on their second tour together when the Corolla came after them. Marine and Dog had done their first tour in 2010, sniffing out drugs and doing their best to keep the Taliban cash-poor. Fischer says that his job is one of the safest for K9 handlers. The bomb-sniffing dogs and their Marines are always on point — that is, patrolling for bombs in front of the rest of the unit. The drug-sniffers, however, stay in the middle, with armed and wary Marines all around. “The [bomb] dogs are proven,” he said, “but not perfect.” It’s the little mistakes that can get dogs — and Marines — blown up.
Fischer had started out wary of the mission in Sangin. Typically, the drug-sniffers aren’t brought in until an area is under relative calm. It’s just good sense to go after the shooters and the bombers before you start sniffing for the narcotics — a stash of weed never blew anybody up. From all Kenneth had heard, Sangin was too hot, with lots of Taliban contesting the area. But he told his staff sergeant, “I’ll go if you ask me to go.”
He went, and it didn’t take long for trouble to find him. The day he arrived, Fischer says, “I got blown up.”
Four days and 14 blood transfusions later, Kenneth found himself back stateside with his wife, Stephanie, at Bethesda. The doctors told him it would take at least a month and a half before he would walk again, but Fischer was back on his feet in a couple weeks. The shoulder shrapnel was so large, and so close to a major artery, that the doctors had to make an incision in Kenneth’s chest and pull it out the front. It looks like a boomerang designed by H.R. Giger. Patching up leg and shoulder took several surgeries each. His eardrums needed to be rebuilt. Smaller bits of shrapnel are still visible under his skin, slowly working their way back out. Recently, doctors had to remove the head of a screw from his body. Philips, if you’re curious.
“I’m one of the lucky ones,” he says to me. Fischer told of his friend who lost both legs above the knee, and that out of the 30 dog-handlers in his unit, 10 had been wounded, half mortally. All of the rest, save him, had lost limbs. “I can function normally, just not normally as a Marine.” He can’t run three miles, minimum, like he used to do each day. But he’s working on it.
Together, he and Stephanie are learning to cope with his PTSD, which first manifested after his time in Iraq. He’s sure to remind me that most of the Marines he knew who got blown up, were young guys, just out of high school and on their first deployments. “I was on my third, and I think that makes it easier. I know how to handle myself.”
He always refers to those young warriors as “my Marines.”
One of them had lost both legs, because the best way for them to get down an embankment was to walk side-by-side, instead of having the dog in the lead. But Fischer says he doesn’t believe he made any mistakes the day the Taliban came after Drak. “I’ve gone over that patrol a hundred times in my head, and there was nothing I could have done any different.” He and his Marines were given no warning signs. The bazaar was full of Afghans, the traffic was normal — except for that one unassuming Corolla with the bomb inside.
Three marines were injured in that moment, and so were lots of Afghans. A car bomb in a bazaar is an ugly thing.
Along with a lot of blood, Drak lost his tail and his testicles. “I was planning on breeding him,” Kenneth says with regret. The dog’s hip had been broken, and there’s a lot of scar tissue from burns on the foot below, giving him a slightly funky gait. All patched up, in October Drak was given a well-deserved medical retirement.
Kenneth and Stephanie immediately filed the papers to adopt him, but it wasn’t easy going.
The process took four months. Military dogs are trained to attack, if and when needed. Not all of them, Fischer told me, can make the adjustment from the battlefield to the back yard. And the people in charge of making that decision on Drak’s behalf didn’t like what they saw. Like Fischer, Drak suffers from PTSD. And when he gets excited, he chatters his teeth very loudly, which the handler misread as aggression. The Fischers have one young daughter, and another baby girl due in September, so it’s easy to understand why the handler might have erred on the side of caution.
I didn’t ask what happens to the retired military dogs who can’t be trusted to lead a civilian life, but as it turns out, I had nothing to worry about. When a dog like Drak isn’t adjusting very well, the Marines descend on him in force to do everything possible to help him along. And if even that doesn’t work? The dog becomes a trainer for pups coming up in the program.
It took some doing — and some personal demonstration of Drak’s sweet nature with Kenneth — but in February Drak was released to his new home, and his old master, in Texas. Fischer bought the dog an orthopedic doggie bed, which Drak had no clue what to do with. Military dogs sleep in kennels, on the ground, or maybe share a cot sometimes. But a bed? “I had to show him how to use it,” Kenneth says. Now the two are inseparable — dog and fancy doggie bed, that is.
Kenneth tells me what his PTSD had been like. “I was angry all the time… so was Drak. But then he came home and we both just calmed down.” Drak is still afraid of thunder, and Fischer sometimes “locks up” under certain kinds of stress. But they’re both much better now than they were while they were apart.
Stephanie and Kenneth were a little worried about how Drak would deal with their two-year-old daughter, Cheyenne. She jumps on him, tries to ride him, gets right in his face to give him love — just like a little girl should. And Drak takes all that love in and gives it right back — just like the family pup should. But as it turns out, she’s only in danger when he gets too wound up while they’re playing — and knocks Cheyenne down on her bottom. Kenneth says, “He forgets he’s 80 pounds.” Anyone who has ever owned a large dog and a small child knows that’s as normal as can be.
We were supposed to be talking over brunch about the Armed Forces Foundation, about The Palazzo, and Omaha Steaks, and Southwest Airlines, and the Adelmans, and all the other sponsors, and this amazing reception the wounded warriors are getting here in Las Vegas. Instead, we mostly talked about Drak.
That’s probably because Kenneth got much more than that handshake and a thank you. He even got more than a free stay in Vegas. In the end, Kenneth and his family did what any happy family should do. They got a dog.