- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
We’ve shared more than a few stories of heroic canine feats in combat, stories about tenacious dogs that have literally charged down the enemy in the face of bullet spray or climbed on top of their fallen handler to protect him from further harm. And while there’s no doubt this life-and-death devotion runs both up and down the leash in equal measure, we don’t often hear about a handler taking a bullet for his dog. But according to his sister, that’s just what handler Sgt. Aaron Yoder did for his bomb-sniffing canine, Bart.
To be clear, there are few reported details about what transpired on April 9, the day Yoder was injured. We know that he and Bart (who was not hurt in the attack) were "attached to Alpha troop 4-73 Cavalry Regiment, 4th brigade 82nd Airborne division" patrolling for IEDs when the unit engaged in a firefight "with Taliban fighters while on a mission in the Maiwand district in Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan." Reuters photographer, Baz Ratner, was on the scene when a bullet hit Yoder’s right leg. Ratner captured not only the fight but also Yoder’s rescue, as his fellow soldiers dragged the wounded handler from danger so he could be medevaced to safety.
In the days following, as Yoder was being transported back to the states for medical treatment, local news teams interviewed Yoder’s family, and while no official military source has released this information, they are certain the bullet that hit their son was meant for his partner, Bart, a black Labrador retriever. "I am so proud of him and what he did to protect his dog," his sister, Mandy Green told reporters earlier this week.
The Taliban has caught on to how well these bomb-sniffing dogs do their job and are, without a doubt, targeting them. The working dynamic of the IED-detection teams always puts the dogs in front — that is the reality of their mission. But that doesn’t mean handlers don’t — or more to the point, wouldn’t — put themselves in harm’s way to protect their dogs. I’ve had a number of handlers tell me that they’ve wrapped their kevlar-protected bodies around their dogs during a firefight to keep them safe. While MWDs are issued protective vests, the gear can be cumbersome or cause overheating and an unexpected attack can catch these teams off guard with the dogs exposed.
On April 13, Yoder’s family set up a public Facebook page titled "Aaron and Bart Updates" so they could share news of Aaron’s recovery with friends and family. The 25-year-old handler has already undergone five surgeries on his leg but so far seems to be doing quite well. There is also talk of Bart returning to the states to join his handler.
As of this morning, this was their latest posting:
Aaron will undergo his 6th and hopefully one of the last surgeries tomorrow morning. This one will take a couple of hours but should be effective in the next steps in recovery. Once we have a concrete update on Bart and his status we’ll share as soon as we know/hear anything. Thank you all again for your prayers and support during this time."
The family has also provided a mailing address for those who would like to send well wishes.
Rebecca Frankel, on leave from her FP desk, is currently writing a book about military working dogs, to be published by Free Press.