HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan --
Riding in an armored truck over Afghanistan?s rutted dirt roads is scarcely a smooth or comfortable experience.
Each bump is felt as leaf springs groan and creak under the weight of the mine resistant, ambush-protected vehicle. The air conditioner circulates dusty air, and unless you?re right next to the vents, you?re drenched in sweat. Body armor weighs down on shoulders and compounds the pain of sitting in one spot for hours on end.
For Lance Cpl. Stephen Mader and his dog Maxx, this experience is routine. Mader is an improvised explosive device detector dog handler with 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, Regimental Combat Team 6.
Their MRAP hits a large bump. Water in a metal dish near the truck?s back entrance splashes onto the floor. Maxx, who was dozing, stands up, puts his front paws on Mader?s lap and nuzzles his head against Mader?s body armor.
Mader wraps his arms around Maxx, gives him a pat on the side, a scratch behind the ears and reassures him everything is alright. Maxx, settles back down, his chin across Mader?s boots ? his spot ? and closes his eyes again.
?It?s basically like having a 3-year-old in Afghanistan,? Mader, who is responsible for every aspect of Maxx?s care, said. He feeds him, cleans him and even monitors Maxx?s behavior for signs of stress or fatigue.
And like a 3-year-old, Maxx, a yellow Labrador, always wants attention.
?Otherwise, he?ll start licking me,? Mader said.
Mader and Maxx have been together for seven months since they met at the 5-week IDD handler school in Southern Pines, S.C. The dogs come to the school pre-trained to obey commands and track explosive scents. Human students go to learn how to handle the dogs.
School instructors interviewed Mader about his demeanor and personality and asked questions like, ?Are you laid back or a hard-charger?? to get an idea of which dog to assign him (Mader said he?s a mix of both).
Mader, who joined the Marine Corps in 2009, said the dog needs a good rapport with their handler. If there is a personality clash, the dog won?t perform. Maxx is a perfect match, he said.
?If I want to be playful and active, he will be. But, if I want to relax, he?ll lay down next to me,? Mader said.
Overall, Maxx, who is actually 4-years-old, is ?pretty chill,? and will sleep when he?s not working, Mader said. But, Maxx does have his wild streaks like when he breaks out of his kennel. He also likes to try to swim in the canals in the southern Helmand River Valley where the battalion?s PSD often travels.
?He?ll try, and I?ll have to stop him,? said Mader.
Unlike some military working dogs, IDDs are not trained to be aggressive. Because of this, IDD handlers have the discretion to allow other Marines to approach or pet their dogs. Maxx is popular with the Marines and gets a lot of attention. But, when it comes time to work, he?s ready to go.
?In the truck, he?s like a pet, but whenever we?re out there, he?s like a tool,? said Mader. And, ?they?re a great tool to have if you use them correctly.?
The duo spends a lot of time on the road. Maxx can sense where they are.
?It?s weird, but he?ll know what (forward operating base) we?re going to,? said Mader. When they?re getting close to FOB Geronimo, a larger, more built-up base, Maxx will get excited and start pacing. When they approach a smaller, more desolate place like Combat Outpost Rankle, ?he?ll just lay there.?
When Mader and Maxx aren?t on the road or working, they?re training. After missions, while other Marines are relaxing, Mader is making sure Maxx?s tracking skills stay sharp.
Maxx isn?t trained with food, rather, with a rubber bouncy toy called a ?bumper.? The bumper is used as a reward for performing a task ? either in training or a real scenario ? successfully. When the bumper comes out, it?s a morale boost for the dog, Mader said.
Even with the long hours and the extra responsibilities of being a dog handler, Mader said it?s ?the best thing to happen to me in the Marine Corps.?
After this deployment, if there is a need and an opportunity, Mader said he would volunteer to be a handler again.
?I love being with the dogs,? he said.
As the Afghan National Army continues to take over more of the security responsibilities in Helmand province, officials at Marine Corps Systems Command said they anticipate the number of dogs currently serving to be reduced in the near future, correlating with the reduction in Marine forces in the region.
If Maxx is no longer needed, Mader said he wants to adopt him.
?I don?t want to give him up,? Mader said. ?I?ve bonded too much to give him up.?
Mader looks down at Maxx, who is still asleep across Mader?s boots, unaware of the potential dangers outside of their MRAP. The occasional hard bump in the road is the only thing that stirs him from his nap on this ride.
However, if needed, the pair will be ready to go on a moment?s notice to track down the scent of any explosives on the route, potentially preventing vehicle damage, injuries or worse.
?A local kid asked if he could buy Maxx for 10 dollars,? Mader recalled. ?I had to tell him he?s worth a little bit more than that.?