Eddie may have saved his best friend's life when he detected a bomb in Afghanistan last year. He might have saved the lives of several other troops as well.
Eddie didn't get a parade. He didn't get a medal. He didn't even get a promotion.
Eddie's reward was a red ball. He was ecstatic. He grabbed it with his mouth, raised his head up high and danced his happy Snoopy dance.
Who says war is hell?
Eddie, a 4-year-old Belgian Malinois, is a bomb-sniffing dog at MacDill Air Force Base that is one of 14 military canines nationally entered in the American Humane Association's 2013 Hero Dog Awards competition. Winners in several categories will be announced later this year with an overall champion picked Oct. 5.
The winner gets $5,000 donated to the handler's chosen charity. In Eddie's case, that would be the U.S. War Dog Association.
One person at MacDill can personally vouch for Eddie's heroism — his former handler, Air Force Staff Sgt. Shannon Hutto, 26.
The pair deployed together to Afghanistan in 2011. By the spring of 2012, they were already close friends, rarely more than a few feet apart.
Hutto said he and Eddie learned to read each other's moods. He talked to Eddie like he might to any soldier. He could look into Eddie's eyes and imagine good times in Tampa. The bond was like nothing Hutto had ever experienced.
On May 23, 2012, Hutto had Eddie on a leash leading a 13-man platoon during a routine daytime patrol. The group stopped to rest as an officer talked to some locals. Hutto sat against a tree, Eddie beside him.
It wasn't long before the group got the command to move out. Hutto stood and took one step. Eddie, beside him, wouldn't budge.
"He didn't want to get up," Hutto recalled. "At first, I thought he was just being lazy."
Eddie gave his buddy a kind of exasperated look. The dog lowered his nose to the dirt. He nudged something under the dust. Hutto looked closely. Just six inches from his foot was the contact plate that would detonate an improvised explosive device, or IED.
Hutto said, "It was a moment of clarity."
He backed away, using "baby steps." He pulled a ball from a pocket. He threw it in the direction opposite the IED. It was Eddie's usual reward.
The dog preferred it over treats. Heck, he might have preferred it over a Humvee ride. Eddie's training at MacDill was designed as a game — do good, get red ball, play with human pal.
Not long after, Eddie found a second IED on a bridge the platoon was about to cross.
Out came the red ball. Good boy.
That night back at base, Hutto said he gave Eddie five different toys. Eddie got treats. He got hugs. He got whispered words of praise. "He basically got anything he wanted that day," Hutto said.
The dog climbed into Hutto's bunk that night. This was a special treat better than any red ball. The warriors nuzzled, then slept.
• • •
Eddie is one of about a dozen dogs at MacDill. Not all are trained to detect explosives.
Others can detect drugs or humans. Some boast multiple talents. Many, like Eddie, can attack on command. One dog has been deployed five times. Eddie has gone overseas just once.
It was a Belgian Malinois named Cairo who accompanied Navy SEALs in 2011 when they raided a compound in Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden.
Cairo was the only member of the team publicly identified. He got to meet President Barack Obama.
The breed, named after the Belgium town Malines, is popular with the military and police agencies. They're smart and easily trained with a seeming limitless well of energy.
Eddie hasn't met the president. But at MacDill, he is considered one of the best.
Handlers say some dogs get grumpy and need to be eased into the day like a business person before a first cup of coffee.
Eddie's never eased into anything in his life. He's always on. He always wants to play. He doesn't slow down. "He's kind of a nut," said Hutto affectionately.
And like a proven combat veteran, Eddie is the kind of dog any new handler wants as a partner. This is a dog with a reliable nose.
"He's got street cred," Hutto said.
Eddie isn't perfect. "He's good at everything else but swimming," Hutto said, "So I give him that one."
And anyway, Eddie's no Navy pooch.
• • •
Eddie's got a new trainer now, Staff Sgt. Josh Bennett. In the career of most military dogs, switching trainers is routine. Bennett said he knows his partner is a good one.
"He's got the highest drive I've ever seen," said Bennett.
Hutto, who trains dogs at MacDill, still visits his friend most days. He gets out the red ball and gives it a toss for Eddie, one combat veteran to another.
Hutto has been on hand to watch Bennett develop his own bond with Eddie. It was difficult for Hutto, like someone watching their girlfriend going out for dinner with another suitor.
Military dogs retire just like the rest of us. It may be an injury or simple old age that ends a career. Often, the dogs become the pets of a former handler.
When Eddie eventually musters out of the Air Force, an old friend will be waiting for him.
"He's mine," said Hutto.
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected]