BRANDON — Navy Petty Officer Matthew Ryan Snyder trusts his life to the black dog that walks on the end of his leash.
Snyder is currently assigned to work with Army Rangers. The 2006 Bloomingdale High graduate and his dog, Sony, spend their days sniffing out explosives in the villages, at checkpoints and on the roads of Afghanistan.
The pair have been stationed at Spin Boldak, in the Kandahar province, since February. The Times sat down to talk with Snyder, 23, last week while he was on leave in Brandon.
What is your day-to-day life like?
A unit will request me and we will go out and do missions just searching the border, searching vehicles, villages. … Some of the locals talk to us, like the older locals, and try to help us out with finding the bad guys. They don't want them there as much as we don't want them there.
How did you get this position?
I volunteered for the deployment to Afghanistan. And as far as K-9, it was kind of lucky that it just happened. The job opened, and they asked if I wanted to do it.
How do you view your dog? Is he a pet, a dog or more?
You have to have a balance, I think. He's always working, always working. It's hard for him just to stop and be a dog. He doesn't even know he's a dog sometimes just because he knows work, and all he does is work. It's almost because he's a dog that he works for his toys and his reward. He gets that dog feeling, I guess, out of it. It's almost natural for dogs to sniff. It's instinctive.
What is he sniffing for?
Explosives. He's trained on all different explosives. The list goes on. I probably couldn't name all 16 or 17 right now. But they're trained on each explosive separately. They sniff it and learn to recognize the smell and then respond on it with "Hey, it's over here." They get rewards for that. It's like hide and go seek.
What does he get as a reward?
A Kong. It's just a rubber toy.
What does Sony do if he has found something?
Technically, his final response is a sit or a down … and he'll lock on to it. But initially, when he's smelling something and I know before he gets to the final and making up his mind, he wags his tail and gets really excited, like "Hey! I found it! I found it!"
What goes through your mind every day when you're going out looking for bombs?
Nothing. I don't think about it, I just go do it. I do think about it at the end of the day. At the end of the day, it's like things went good. You kind of do a report on yourself and what you could or couldn't have done to improve. I don't really think about because I'm just so focused on the task at hand. I know my job so well.
Why did you join the military?
One reason I think is just because my family was military. My dad was in the Navy. My uncles were all either Army or Navy. Another reason was almost to get away from the standard going to college after high school, getting a job. Just to get away from the normalcy. I want to do something different.
Does faith play a big role in your day-to-day life?
Yes, it does. I like to think it does at least. I definitely catch myself praying or thinking things from time to time, just wishing. Faith is definitely a factor over there.
How did things change in Afghanistan after Osama bin Laden was killed?
Nothing changed at all. It's still exactly the same. I didn't feel any fluctuation in attacks or activity at all. … It's always a little more activity in the warmer months anyway. In the winter months there is still stuff, just less.
What's the hardest part of being in Afghanistan?
Just being away from my loved ones, my wife and kids. Other than that, I wouldn't mind staying out there if it wasn't that I couldn't be with my family all the time. Just because it's work and extra money for me.
Is Afghanistan really different from Brandon?
Oh, yeah. I just wanted to drop to the ground and kiss everything when I got here. Sometimes it gets so hot (there) and you're just miserable and want to go home. I just try to … imagine I'm on the Florida beaches.
Biz Carson can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2441.