Company Trains Dogs to Save Marines' Lives
BY TED M. NATT JR.
The use of bomb-sniffing dogs in Iraq and Afghanistan has become increasingly important because terrorist groups are using improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, as their main weapon.
"IEDs are probably the No. 1 killer of Americans in those two war zones," says Lane Kjellsen, a retired Army sergeant major and owner of K2 Solutions Inc. in Southern Pines.
K2 signed a one-year, $8.7 million contract last August to provide 112 trained and certified dogs to the U.S. Marine Corps, while also maintaining the Corps' overall IED pool of 247 dogs.
Terms of the contract call for K2 to provide training for the dogs and trainers, as well as kennel, feed and care for the dogs until Marine units are ready to take them on deployment. Labrador retrievers are used because of their scent recognition, obedience and drive to hunt.
"The contract has allowed us to get directly involved with the Marines and help them to defeat their enemies," Kjellsen says.
But the contract also presented the company with numerous challenges.
"In the first two months, we had to stand up temporary training facilities, purchase transportation capabilities, screen 170 dogs to find 112 qualified dogs and hire 50 people," Kjellsen says.
At the same time, K2 was trying to secure a site for the permanent training facility. It first selected a 95-acre tract on McIntosh Road between Cameron and Carthage. But the company withdrew its application to rezone the property last October after the Moore County Planning Board voted unanimously to recommend denial of the request.
K2 then set its sights on property zoned for heavy industrial off N.C. 211 in Aberdeen, but again dropped its rezoning application due to opposition to the project.
"We worked hard on getting that dog training facility in Moore County," says Ray Ogden, executive director of Partners in Progress.
K2 finally purchased 125 acres near Derby in neighboring Richmond County and got the permanent facility operational earlier this year.
"The people in Derby have welcomed us from the get-go," Kjellsen says.
While some of the training is done on-site, K2 also works with land and business -owners in the Sandhills to conduct off-site training in fields, warehouses and offices. So far, dogs have been trained in Hoke, Lee, Moore, Richmond and Scotland counties.
"We're training the dogs for a task, not a case," Kjellsen says. "The dog has to know what his task is, regardless of the environment. The training we provide here is critical to how the dogs will work with Marine units on the other side of the world."
In fact, any contractor providing IED training for the Marines must develop dogs that are "capable of searching all types of urban and rural areas, including buildings (occupied, unoccupied or derelict), routes, vehicles and open areas," according to the Improvised Explosive Device Detector Dog Training Handbook, which was released publicly last March.
That is why the dogs are trained to stay on task around strangers and where loud noises regularly occur. K2 trainers use real and simulated charges to help ensure that this goal is achieved.
After five weeks of training here, the dogs and their Marine handlers spend four more weeks together in Twentynine Palms, Calif., working on more advanced tasks, with the main focus shifting to detecting explosive devices in a war zone.
The Marine Corps launched the program in 2007 after infantrymen issued an urgent-needs request for bomb-sniffing dogs that could deploy with units.
"The IEDs were starting to become a problem about the time I retired in January 2004," says Kjellsen, who served in Iraq and has returned as a consultant since founding K2.
Kjellsen expects the current contract, which has topped $10 million, thanks to modifications ordered by the Marines in the past year, to run through the end of October. K2 is currently competing with other dog-training firms to continue running the program under what will likely be a five-year contract.
"Right now, we have a little over half," Kjellsen says. "We are in stiff competition."
But supporting American soldiers is more than a slogan at K2.
"Everyone should take heart in what they're doing," Kjellsen says, "and understand the implications of accepting anything less than complete victory."
Thanks to the dog-training work being done by K2 and others, most Marine infantry battalions deploying to war zones this year have bomb-sniffing dogs.
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