FORT BRAGG, N.C. - December 26, 2007 is a day Sgt. Chris Burrell, a military working dog handler from the 108th Military Police Company, 16th MP Brigade, will never forget.
During a tour in Iraq, three explosively formed penetrators pierced his vehicle, one of them severing his left leg above the knee during a patrol in Baghdad. Now he has a new date to remember - July 8, the day he reported back to duty at the Fort Bragg kennels and to the job he loves.
After being pulled from the wreckage of his vehicle, Burrell began a long journey to different hospitals and eventually ended up at Walter Reed Medical Center where he learn to use his prosthetic leg. He was not alone in his recovery. "My mom stayed 62 days in the hospital with me. When she had to go back to work, my father stayed with me the rest of the time I was an inpatient," said Burrell, a Goldsboro, N.C. native. Friends from North Carolina, Washington D.C., members of his church and his former Soldiers also visited, called or sent encouraging e-mails. "It just shows that people really do care. That helps out a lot," he said.
As Burrell went through therapy, he had a lot of time to think about his future. "When I went through the medical board process, there were a lot of things in the air ... did I want to get out' Did I want to go to school' Or did I want to try a government job'" he said. "I didn't want to give up my career. I've love the Army. I've been in it for nine years now. It's something I enjoy and I love."
When Burrell put in his return to duty packet to go back to Fort Bragg working with dogs, it came as no surprise to his parents. "My mom always has known I am stubborn. I don't give up on anything. She's always told me, 'Stay in, do what you want to do.'" When Burrell was approved, he called his parents with the news.
"They were really excited for me. I think they're just happy that I've adapted to the situation and I've continued my lifestyle and I haven't let it affect who I am or who I'm going to be."
Irgus, a German shepherd, is Burrell's new partner. The 2-year-old, known as a "green" dog, has been at Fort Bragg for only a month; about the same time Burrell returned to duty. "There's a lot of work, time, effort and patience that goes into working with a "green dog" not because the lack of training but the amount of training that they have time-wise," said Burrell. "On top of that, you've got a dog who is still a puppy. The slightest thing like a butterfly comes near, he breaks concentration."
A typical day for Burrell and Irgus starts out with narcotics training at various training sites around the post.
"Working 30 minutes with a dog is like an hour on a treadmill ... it's nonstop," said Burrell. "Your mind is in a zone. You've got to pay attention to what your dog is doing. You've got to make sure that he's actively sniffing. If he misses something, you've got to make sure he goes over to it later. You have to help him out, saying 'Here, buddy, check this out.'" Repetition is key for a working dog to become a force multiplier. After working narcotics "problems," Burrell and Irgus come back to the kennel and work in the obedience yard.
The team also works on the patrol portion of training such as aggression towards a threat. Special arm sleeves and bite suits keep the trainer protected while the dog learns how to attack an opponent, said Burrell.
The time spent with each other also builds a bond, he said. "That's my partner, that's my best friend. He's there to help me and I'm here to be with him."
Burrell is adjusting back into his former job with some new skills he's acquired since the accident. "One thing I've learned in the two and a half years I was at Walter Reed was to learn not what you can't do but what you can do. You have to understand and be humble about yourself. You have to understand what your abilities are and adapt to those. I know there used to be certain things I used to be able to do, things that I can't do at this time but I'll try to do them to the best of my ability," he said.
Burrell's coworkers have been watching and following his example. "His spirits are high and he actually sets the example for a lot of other people in the whole detachment," said Staff Sgt. Darrell Wade, acting kennel master. "(People think) 'if Chris can do it, I can do it.'"
After a year or two of training with dogs stateside, Burrell could be eligible to deploy again. With Irgus trained as a narcotics dog, it's easier to get back into the "swing of things."
Currently, explosive trained dog teams are being deployed overseas. "With an explosive dog, it's not a greater responsibility, it's more responsibility," he said. "If I wanted to change over to an explosive dog, (I would have to) feel comfortable with myself. I want to make sure that I ... know I am capable of doing that before I put myself in that situation," said Burrell.
Since the accident, Burrell's look on life has changed.
"Going through life situations, everyone deals with changes, emotional states, physical states. I think that is what shapes you as a person. No one person is the same. In my situation, it built me a stronger foundation, emotionally and mentally," he said. "I don't get worked up over small stuff. I shrug it off and take it for what it is. It's made me stronger to the point that I've realized my abilities and I just know mentally and physically, I can adapt and overcome anything that I want to do."
Burrell, at 30, is poised to make new dates to remember ... dates of achievement forged by his determination and passion.