Thursday, December 23, 2010

Born a Champion, Died a Hero

Have your tissue handy as you will need it.

Cole was born to be a champion. He died a hero.

The black Labrador retriever once owned by a Dover family gave his life for his country, saving a U.S. Marine on the killing fields of Afghanistan.

In Cole's last moments on earth, as Cpl. Brian Holm's three-man unit searched for mines along a dangerous road in Helmand Province, the black Lab looked over his shoulder at Holm, his handler. Holm later told his wife, Brittany, that he will never forget the look on Cole's face. It seemed to say, "I won't let them hurt you."
Then came the explosion.

Bo's King Cole JH was born Aug. 1, 2007, in Iowa, one of the sought-after pups of two field-trial champions.

Had he taken the course of his litter mates, Cole might have spent his life training and competing in field trials, in which dogs make complicated retrievals in competition with one another. But Cole followed a different path, one that led to Dover, North Carolina and, eventually, Afghanistan. Steve Tull, a Dover hunter and dog handler, bought the $3,000 puppy because he wanted to try his hand at field trials with a dog bred for the task.

Training can be costly, but Tull had a friend who took it on. When the friend moved away, Tull was left with a partially trained dog and a decision to make about what to do with him. Tull hunted ducks with Cole and trained him as best he could, but he could not spend the $600 or $700 a month it would take to send Cole to a professional trainer. Tull could see Cole was getting bored: He was a working dog without a job.

One day, Tull spoke with Bob Agnor, a friend from the Delmar Waterfowl Club, a Dover hunt club. Agnor works for K2 Solutions Inc., a North Carolina firm that trains dogs to sniff out IEDs, the improvised explosive devices that claim lives and limbs on today's battlefields. Tull and his wife learned that military handlers form a deep bond with their dogs and treat them well, which is what they wanted for Cole. So Cole shipped out for North Carolina, where he met Holm, the man who would become his handler and comrade in arms.

Brian Holm, a 26-year-old Cleveland native, joined the Marines on Oct. 30, 2006. His military occupation specialty -- his MOS -- is combat engineer.

The Marines needed more handlers for dogs that sniff out IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan, so when the call went out, Holm volunteered. He was sent to K2 Solutions in Aberdeen, N.C., at the time, home of Bo's King Cole JH. The two met about Jan. 10 of this year, hitting it off immediately.

"We clicked real well. He just kind of responded to what I did," Holm recalled in a telephone interview from Twentynine Palms, Calif., where he is stationed. "He always understood what I wanted him to do. That's why I never switched to another dog."
Trainer and trainee graduated in mid-February. Cole became Sgt. Cole, USMC -- Marine dogs traditionally hold a rank one level above their handler's. By April 9, they were on their way to Afghanistan.

When Cole left, he took a piece of Tull's heart with him. Tull was determined not to lose track of the dog who had spent so many nights on the family's couch -- always with his head on a pillow -- or playing with the family's two yellow Labs. Eventually, Tull received a photo of Cole with a Marine corporal with the name "Holm" stitched on his uniform.

Armed with that information, Tull e-mailed Navy Lt. Bryan Davenport, a chaplain assigned to the 3rd Combat Engineer Battalion, 1st Marine Division.

"Cole was, and is, a very special dog and carries a big piece of my heart with him," Tull wrote. "I feel that it is important to let Cpl. Holm know the history behind Cole, and I would like to be able to send the two of them care packages if and when they are deployed. I do not know this Marine personally, however, I pray for him and his canine companion daily."
Davenport responded with e-mail and postal addresses for Holm.

First mission showed skill. On Cole's first mission in Afghanistan, the black Lab settled any question about his ability. He sniffed out an 80-pound IED. Before long, he was top dog. Only days before Holm and Cole had shipped out, an e-mail arrived in Holm's inbox from Tull.

"I miss him terribly, and not a day goes by in my life that I don't wish he was still at my side, however, I know that he is doing important work and will do everything he can to keep you and your other Marines safe," Tull wrote.

They swapped e-mails, and Tull and wife, Lisa, struck up a friendship with Holm's wife, Brittany, who lives in Cleveland with their three young boys.

"I must say my husband is more on the 'manly man Marine' side," Brittany confided. "And when he received your first letter while still in the States, he was reading it to me and began to get teary-eyed. I just said, 'Brian, you really love him, don't you?' And he told me he will do everything he possibly can to bring Cole home safe."

She said the original date for Holm and Cole to return home was in September, but their orders had changed.

"We'll write back soon."

When the summer heat ended, Cole's routine ramped up.
"There were two other dogs in the platoon. One dog had one find, one dog had zero finds. Cole was our go-to dog. He was finding IEDs every mission in October," Holm said.

Oct. 15 was scheduled to be their last patrol. Holm, Cole, two other Marines and another dog were searching for mines on a busy paved road lined with houses.

"We know the route's heavily IED'd, that's for sure. It was known for kite-string, command-pull IEDs," Holm said. Those explosives are tripped by an insurgent hiding nearby who pulls the string when the target is close. Cole was searching about 50 feet in front of the men. The Marine with the mine detector was the closest man to Cole.

"There was no sign of kite strings," Holm said. There was no sign of insurgents. Cole looked over his shoulder and caught Holm's eye. Someone pulled a string.

"Cole was probably not even 3 meters [10 feet] from the IED," Holm said. No one knows why the insurgent pulled the string. Perhaps nerves got to him. Maybe he did not like dogs. All Holm knows is that if Cole had not taken the hit, the Marine with the mine detector was next in line.

"If it wasn't on Cole, they would've pulled the cord on him. It's not just me that believes that," he said.

Holm's hitch with the Marines ends next month.

"I'm going to pursue dog handling in the civilian world," he said.

Holm did not talk much about the aftermath of the blast in his interview with The News Journal. That part of the story was told in an Oct. 23 e-mail from Brittany Holm to Steve Tull. In it, Brittany worried about the hurt she could hear in Brian's voice.

"He told me they gave him two choices when it came to Cole's body. Either he could bury him or have him cremated," she wrote.

"Brian chose to bury him. He buried him where the incident occurred. He said he wanted him to be there because that's where he became a hero."

In an e-mail to Davenport, the Navy chaplain, Tull wrote: "I now know that this was God's plan for Cole all along. He was a very special animal and touched many hearts in his short time on earth. I truly believe that God has a special place in heaven for him."
Tull thanked Davenport for his help, then closed his e-mail with a salute to the black Lab who had slept on his family's couch -- always with his head on a pillow.

"God Bless and RIP Sgt. Bo's King Cole, USMC."