One of Josh Miller’s favorite Marines during his second tour of duty in Afghanistan was Stormy, a 4-year-old black Labrador retriever.
Stormy was a bomb dog, highly trained to sniff out improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, which cause the vast majority of casualties to troops in Afghanistan.
He was one of about 30 bomb dogs assigned to Cpl. Miller’s squad, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, and Stormy showed a knack for tracking down homemade explosives. During one foot patrol in the mountainous Helmand Province, Stormy located five roadside bombs, saving soldiers and civilians from injury or death.
“He was a great dog, not only because he could find IEDs, but also because of his personality and his companionship,” said Miller, 24, a 2009 Chartiers-Houston graduate. “You’d go out on patrol and get shot at for three hours, then you’d come back to base pretty wired because you’d just been shot at, and he’d come up to you and want to cuddle up. It took your mind off what you’d just gone through.”
The former wartime buddies were unexpectedly reunited recently when Miller’s sister, Jessica Hall, adopted Stormy after the lab retired from military service.
Hall, a 2005 graduate of Chartiers-Houston High School whose husband, Matthew, served in Iraq and Afghanistan, joined a waiting list last year to adopt a military dog, and was notified in November 2013 that she was randomly matched with a dog named Stormy.
She heard the name before: Josh mentioned the dog in telephone conversations, and Jessica had seen a picture of Stormy, wearing a green headband and a “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” sign on St. Patrick’s Day that her brother sent her.
“My brother told me they had dogs with them, and I asked, ‘Can I send them treats?’” said Hall. “He sent me a picture of Stormy and I said, ‘That’s the cutest dog I’ve ever seen.’ It was crazy when I found out I got the dog Josh served with because the odds were against it. He’s a sweetheart. I never thought in a million years a military dog would be so affectionate and lovable.”
Military dogs have been used in different ways since World War I, but the Marine Corps started the bomb dog pilot program in 2007, and it has grown to include more than 600 dogs.
Other branches of the military use different breeds, but the Marine Corps trains only Labrador retrievers. And as operations wind down in Afghanistan, the Marine Corps is finding homes for the dogs, mostly with military dog handlers and wounded warriors.
The dogs, Miller said, are the best weapon the military has for finding IEDs.
Stormy and other bomb dogs went out ahead of soldiers about 40 yards, and if they picked up the scent of a roadside bomb, they would lie down. The handler would call them back and send them out again, and if they laid down again, it meant they likely found a bomb.
Stormy retired after only one tour of duty with the rank of corporal – most retire at the age of 7 or 8 - because he suffered a heat stroke in Afghanistan, where temperatures often climbed past 120 degrees.
The stroke makes it difficult for Stormy to regulate his body temperature, so Hall limits the amount of time he plays at her home in North Carolina, where her husband is now stationed.
“He runs like crazy, and he’s toy obsessed. He loves playing with his rope and chasing tennis balls, but after about 10 minutes or so we make him stop so he doesn’t get overheated,” said Hall.
She adopted Stormy in November, and Miller visited the dog over the Christmas holiday, the first time they had seen each other since serving in southern Afghanistan.
It was a happy reunion.
“He recognized me. He knew me right away,” said Miller. “He loved being around the Marines, there were always 30 or 40 Marines around him and he was always playful and wanted to be petted. He’s a great dog.”
Hall joked that she’s “chopped liver” whenever Stormy sees her brother.
During a recent visit home, she watched as Stormy chased after a tennis ball while Miller shouted, “Hunt it up,” the command given to dogs to search for IEDs.
She plans to get Stormy certified as a therapy dog because he is so affectionate around people.
Miller, who was discharged after serving four years with the Marines and now lives at his famiy’s Chartiers Township home, recently adopted a bomb dog of his own, a 6-year-old Labrador retriever named Bonnie who served two tours in Afghanistan, and he flew to North Carolina Thursday to bring her home.
“The main reason I wanted one was because they served their country the same way we did,” said Miller, who is attending California University of Pennsylvania. “They were overseas with us through all of the heat and all of the times we got shot at, and they got hurt and sometimes killed. I thought the least I could do is give a good retirement home to a dog.”