WASHINGTON — Rich Vargus first witnessed Viridiana Lavalle’s dedication to the military working dog profession during a 2014 deployment.
That spring Lavalle traveled nearly 8,000 miles to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom as the U.S. Forces Afghanistan Regional Command-East Military Working Dog or MWD program manager.
Insurgent attacks on U.S. troops in the mountainous country led to a greater demand for military working dogs in brigade combat teams.
The Army began pulling infantry troops to train as handlers in the Tactical Explosive Detection Dog, or TEDD program, a service initiative to select and train infantry Soldiers to receive a modified basic handler course; providing additional canine force teams to commanders in Afghanistan. The program condensed about 17 weeks of training into six weeks.
“IEDs were taking out our kids left and right,” said Vargus, then a lieutenant colonel directing U.S. Central Command’s law enforcement operations in the Middle East. “We didn’t have enough traditional military working dog teams to deploy.”
Vargus trusted Lavalle, then a 31-year-old sergeant first class, to validate the infantry teams during a 30-day acclimation after arriving in theater.
Lavalle didn’t take the responsibility lightly.
She meticulously studied troops’ interactions with the dogs and their ability to build confidence in their canine. She observed how teams adjusted to the environment. Lavalle evaluated trainers and how well canines detected traditional explosives, and the threats from improvised homemade explosives.
The Taliban used masking agents to cover up to 500 pounds of explosives in an attempt to offset the canines’ senses and capacity to track explosive odors.
Lavalle also had a difficult task to evaluate TEDD teams to determine if a team would be a force asset capable of going outside the wire.
While commanders’ called for more qualified dog handlers in the field, she remained firm in her decision and made the tough call to redeploy a TEDD team if she decided it didn’t pass the acclimation and validation period. She made her decisions after concentrated efforts to work with handlers to reinforce basic detection protocols.
“She felt that responsibility,” Vargus said. “She made the call, and had the full support of CENTCOM. …..that [took] a lot of guts, but the bottom line as a senior NCO, she was responsible for Soldiers’ lives.”
A New York City native who spent six years with the NYPD and as a special agent for the Federal Aviation Administration during 9/11, Vargus respected Lavalle’s no frills attitude. Lavalle, a military police officer from a blue collar suburb in South Florida had impressed her peers with her knowledge of canine training and exemplary leadership.
Lavalle respects her Soldiers, regardless of rank. As a leader she voiced her opinion when she didn’t agree with a policy or saw a Soldier try to cut corners in training. She never accepted the status quo, Vargus said.
“She was a ball of fire,” said Vargus.
Now a sergeant major and the Army Military Working Dog program manager at the Office of the Provost Marshal General in Washington D.C., she ranks as the Army’s top MWD handler and the first woman to hold the position.
Lavalle said she’s humbled to be in her current position and strives to set an example not only for the MWD Program, but also throughout the Army’s military police community.
Today women comprise 22% of the Army’s MWD workforce and have made numerous strides since Lavalle enlisted into the Army two decades ago.
Vargus said when the Army assigned Lavalle to become the Eighth Army MWD Program Manager in Yongsan, South Korea, Lavalle worked under tremendous pressure to bring up the low MWD certification rates. With troops only deployed for a year, certifications were a challenge.
Regardless of certification rates fluctuating she held her handlers across the Eighth Army MWD Program to the strict Army MWD certification standards. She held herself and handlers to the Army’s high expectations.
MWD teams get tested on various critical tasks such as obedience, obedience course, detection and patrol capabilities. She evaluated how well canines respond to their assigned handler’s verbal commands and their ability to navigate through physical obstacles.
Following her lead, the skills of her MWD handlers became sharper, Vargus said, because Lavalle stuck to her convictions.
“That feeling of always trying to prove yourself and find ways to exceed the standards — I don’t think will ever go away,” she said. “It’s who I am.”
“What I try to explain to young handlers is regardless of what people think or say, always stay true to yourself," she added. "It’s not just about the Army standards, but also having personal standards and always trying to exceed those standards in everything you do."
For the love of dogs
At age 13, Viridiana Lavalle found her life’s calling while planted in front of her family’s television.
As a child, Lavalle watched hours of classic black and white reruns of “Lassie” and “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin.”
She dreamed of becoming a veterinarian while growing up in Broward County, Florida, where her family owned two German shepherds.
While attending Western High School she enrolled in Army Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps where her junior ROTC instructor, retired Master Sgt. Alexander Poole, played the movie “War Dogs of Vietnam” she then decided she would become a military Working dog handler.
“I was intrigued by the War Dogs of Vietnam and the military’s structure,” Lavalle said.
Hard work had been engrained into Lavalle at an early age. An immigrant from Mexico City, she had seen her parents toil and struggle as restaurant workers in South Florida before eventually her mother became a television senior producer and her father a real estate agent.
In high school, she volunteered at a local veterinarian clinic. While she loved caring for canines, she now saw her place in America clearly, not as their caretaker, but as their partner.
The path before her seemed simple: she would become the first member of her family, a first generation Mexican-American, to join the military and she would spend her life working with the animals she loved.
At 15 she rode in police cars while shadowing K-9 handlers on shift and during training.
Davie, a western-themed suburb of over 100,000 which lies near the eastern edge of the Florida Everglades, can be prone to flooding. K-9 units can play a crucial role in rescue efforts, narcotics detection, building searches and missing person cases.
The sense of family, traditional in most Mexican families, never left her. She viewed her friends in the canine community as one of her own, just as she saw the canines as her own. “Once you have her friendship, she treats you like family,” Peek said.
She respected the sacrifices the dogs made and their grace and power. The earliest military working dogs used in combat can be traced back to 600 B.C. by the Greek and Roman armies. Traditionally the U.S. military purchases canines from Germany where the dogs are bred from birth to develop the traits necessary for the rigors of military and police operations.
Military working dogs risk their lives in helping detect explosives, search for missing Soldiers and even target enemies with their patrol capabilities.
In 2011, a military working dog named Cairo reportedly helped U.S. Navy Seals capture Osama Bin Laden.
On deployments she took measures to assure young handler’s had access to veterinarian care. Lavalle adopted several military working dogs over the years, including Zony, a protective German shepherd that specialized as a patrol drug detection.
Blazing her own trail
Lavalle swore into the Army in August 2001 just weeks before planes struck the World Trade Center towers, spurring America into war. And like the dogs of Rin Tin Tin’s generation, canines would again play a critical role in a major conflict. “The ops tempo was extremely difficult for handlers during that time period,” Lavalle said.
U.S. forces sent the first 30 MWD teams to Iraq in the spring of 2004. MWD Detachments also assist with counter improvised explosive devices measures in a deployed environment, performing critical, potentially life-saving tasks. The MWD teams work with U.S. Special Operations, infantry units and combat engineers.
Lavalle graduated as a Military Working Dog handler in 2003 from the 341st Training Squadron, Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas. As often the lone female during MWD training, Lavalle had to continually prove herself among her male counterparts, some of whom doubted her abilities.
“It was challenging,” said Lavalle, who would later deploy to Iraq three years later as a protective services agent for the commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. John Abizaid. “It definitely motivated me to work that much harder, so that I could prove myself as a Soldier and as a dog handler to earn the respect of other dog handlers and dog trainers.”
Her peers saw the results of her work. Now retired Command Sgt. Maj. Jeremy Peek led certifications for dog handlers at Fort Stewart, Georgia where Lavalle trained new MWD handlers and non-commissioned officers. When one of Lavalle’s Soldiers ran the obstacle course, they outperformed other MWD teams, Peek said.
During live fire training where Soldiers and their canines must run an obstacle course with the sound of gunfire, similar to what they would face against hostiles.
Lavalle showed trainers how to keep the dogs calm amidst the cadence of live rounds.
“They were phenomenal,” Peek said. “She’s one of the best handlers that the Army has. She’s incredibly knowledgeable. She outworked everybody.”
Peek a Michigan native, joined the Army in the early 90s to pursue a career in law enforcement and to follow in the footsteps of his father, an ex-Texas State Trooper.
He said in the small, male-dominated field of military working dog handlers, Lavalle had to overcome harsh scrutiny from her peers.
During her career, Lavalle returned to South Florida as a member of protective services in U.S. Southern Command to provide personal security for senior military commanders. Lavalle also spent time as a member of the Army’s Special Reaction Teams or SRT, the Army’s version of SWAT.
Still, Lavalle she spent the majority of her years in K-9 units. At Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Lavalle performed U.S. Secret Service and United Nation missions working as Patrol Explosive Detector Dog Handler.
In 20 years as a dog handler and trainer, Lavalle has worked with thousands of canines. Her position as the Army’s most senior dog handler has taken her away from working with dogs to an office in the Pentagon, so she can oversee and help the career field evolve.
Vargus said he admired Lavalle’s ability to see the 31K field from a holistic perspective.
For canines deployed in Afghanistan Lavalle looked for solutions to help dogs stay cool in the sweltering midday heat. For dogs stationed across the Eighth Army MWD program she thought of how to shelter them from the harsh Korean winters.
“She’s a full spectrum thinker,” Vargus said. “Most kennel masters are concerned with the immediacy of the operational mission. Sgt. Maj. Lavalle is always thinking short and long-range encompassing the operational and strategic mission.”
Lavalle often would work into the night developing plans to improve the training and processes for the Army’s 500 military working dogs.
The sergeant major didn’t lead from a distance. She has travelled thousands of miles to Army installations to meet with K-9 units and observe training.
She’d wake early and set up training sites hours before participants arrived, Vargus said.
“Leading from the front is her mantra,” he said. “She would make sure there was mission success.”
This was clearly demonstrated when she worked diligently to assist the adoption process of TEDD’s to former handlers and law enforcement when CENTCOM drew down the program.
“She was a miracle worker,” Vargus said.
Vargus recalled one day at Fort Stewart when Lavalle lectured junior Soldiers about how to properly wear the bite suit, a protective outfit used to train MWDs to take down perpetrators.
Without hesitation, Lavalle pulled herself into the puffy orange garment and fearlessly let a canine sprint toward her with great force, knocking her body to the ground.
In June, Lavalle created the Military Working Dog Symposium, the first in-person event of its kind, at the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in Southern Indiana. She contacted industry leaders and experts to host sessions in obedience training, physical conditioning, and other skills. She plans on making the symposium an annual event, encouraging greater cooperation among the military and government agencies.
She also met with veterinarians to help better care for canines’ health including teaching handlers how to treat dogs for combat wounds.
Vargus, said the peers who judged her harshly now respect her.
“When she speaks everybody stops and listens,” Vargus said. “They know she’s not speaking just to rattle somebody … She can explain and articulate the needs of military working dogs at all levels of command, she understands and is well versed in the operational, tactical, and strategic utilization of military working dogs. ”