In June 2011, this column introduced you to Sgt. Jason Cartwright and his military working dog, Isaac. Both warriors had just returned from a year of hunting for improvised explosive devices buried beneath Afghanistan's treacherous sand.
"These are real IEDs — real explosives — and everything else is out of the picture," the soldier said.
Today, Sgt. Cartwright and Isaac are once again searching for enemy bombs.
"Isaac and I left Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., on our way back to the sandbox of Afghanistan," Cartwright wrote in a September email to "The Unknown Soldiers."
The Army dog handler, who also served in Iraq, misses his wife and four-year-old son. But Isaac, a black Labrador that saved countless American and Afghans last year, has also become family. Now, the soldier and his best friend are once again risking their lives.
"Thirteen months we were on that battlefield with all the explosions, firefights, and sights of seeing the bloody, wounded, or the open-eyed stares of the dead," Cartwright wrote. "We soon hit reality, to not only put our war faces on but also knowing our country has called on us yet again to serve."
While conventional wisdom inside the United States is that the war in Afghanistan is "winding down," the image of Cartwright and his black Lab scouring the country's unforgiving terrain for bombs that kill and maim troops and civilians, including children, challenges our perception of a conflict entering its 12th year.
"The first thing I have to do is get educated on the Taliban's tactics, as I just know they have changed," Cartwright wrote. "(I'm) hoping at the age of five, (Isaac) will be as proficient and experienced to bring us home one more time."
While confronting a ruthless enemy, Cartwright admits to also battling the scars of his first deployment, which included finding bombs that terrorists intentionally buried near schools and hospitals.
"The flashbacks and memories are strongly on my mind," he wrote. "(I know) the dangers that Isaac and I will soon be facing again."
Cartwright and Isaac serve with the Engineer Canine Company of the Army's 5th Engineer Battalion, which has consistently proved itself as one of America's elite defenses against enemy IEDs.
"My wife said, 'I am more at ease knowing that they are sending one of the best teams again,' " Cartwright wrote.
Even though they completed a previous Afghanistan deployment, the Army, which is focused on countering the evolving Taliban threat, made sure the soldier and his dog underwent months of pre-deployment training. Once they arrived in the war zone, the preparations continued.
"Two weeks have gone by of intense training," Cartwright wrote. "We now stand ready to go out and support NATO and coalition forces."
Being separated from your family by thousands of miles for months at a time is almost unimaginable to those of us who haven't served in the military. Afghanistan, in particular, is a desolate place where loneliness can creep up on even the most seasoned warrior.
"Across the airfield through the open desert and dusty air, those unforgettable mountains that I said goodbye to are standing still and bold," the soldier wrote.
Images courtesy: Sgt. Jason Cartwright
Having Isaac by his side is a source of daily comfort.
"I couldn't imagine going back without my dog," Cartwright said before his second deployment. "We have a special rapport and special bond; I know I trust that dog, and that dog trusts me."
Both the soldier and his black Lab survived close encounters with the enemy during their first go-around. This deployment will almost certainly carry the same perils.
"We are going to support the troops on the front lines of the battlefield; to seek and search for the deadliest weapon used against U.S. and NATO force — the IEDs," he wrote.
The willingness of heroes like Sgt. Jason Cartwright to serve in Afghanistan gives his fellow Americans the luxury of worrying about other things. Yet for the foreseeable future, I'll be checking my email every morning, hoping to learn that this soldier, his courageous dog and their fellow troops are safe.
"To a destination unknown, we take off into the dusty air over the mountains of Afghanistan," the soldier wrote. "To be continued."
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