- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Rebecca Frankel
Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent
On July 24, 2008, a bomb-sniffing dog named Sasha and her handler, Lance Corporal Ken Rowe, were on a routine patrol in Afghanistan. The team was attached to the 2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment. According to reports, Rowe, a handler with the Royal Veterinary Corps, wasn’t actually still supposed to be in Afghanistan — he was meant to complete his deployment the day before and go back home to West Moor, near Newcastle. But Lowe had decided that he and Sasha should stay in country because “he was concerned about a lack of cover for comrades.”
Apparently, he had good reason to think that his fellow soldiers would need them. Despite the fact that he and Sasha, the four-year-old yellow Labrador, had only been assigned to work together earlier that year, and despite their short working history, this team was “considered the best in the Kandahar region.” Sasha had 15 confirmed operational finds.
But on that summer day, while they were waiting at the “rear gate of Forward Operating Base Inkerman, high in the Upper Sangin Valley,” they were hit by a Taliban attack. According to the BBC, six men were injured, one of them gravely — Lowe and Sasha were killed. (While the BBC says that they were “ambushed by a rocket-propelled grenade attack,” another report says the pair was killed “instantly by automatic gunfire.”) Lowe, 24, was the 112th British soldier killed in Afghanistan.
This week, news came out that, in May, Sasha will be awarded the prestigious Dickin Medal — “the highest award any animal can receive for lifesaving bravery in military conflict,” perhaps better known as the animals’ Victoria Cross. According to the organization that presents the honor, PDSA, Sasha is being awarded the medal because her “determination to search and push forward — despite gruelling [sic] conditions and relentless Taliban attacks — was a morale boost to the soldiers who entrusted their lives to her weapon-finding capability.”
The BBC has footage of what was meant to be Lowe and Sasha’s last patrol and the Telegraph‘s Sean Rayment embedded with the British Army and spent some time with their unit just days before the pair was killed. He describes Sasha as having a “friendly face and a tail that never stopped wagging,” and captured well a heartwarming moment between the handler and his dog after Sasha, forgetting her military discipline, took off after a stray cat:
Sasha disappeared, without a sound in a cloud of dust, chasing the cat around the camp. We all laughed quietly. “Who’d be a dog handler?”, L/Cpl Rowe said to himself, slightly embarrassed by his dog’s momentary lapse of self-control.
Sasha came back, head bowed, knowing that she had erred. L/Cpl Rowe attached the lead and said “sit!” The dog obeyed, and then, in an act of affection, let her body rest against the side of her master’s leg. “She’s saying sorry,” said L/Cpl Rowe.
The last recipient was also a war dog, Theo, who also received the honor posthumously in 2012. Sasha is the 65th animal to receive the medal — others that have come before her include pigeons, horses, and even a cat, all for their feats of bravery during war.
Rebecca Frankel is senior editor, special projects at Foreign Policy. Her forthcoming book War Dogs: Tales of Canine Heroism, History, and Love comes out on Oct. 14 from Palgrave Macmillan.