The Dog Star

Ryan Millbern, Vail PD's first canine officer, braves the heat and bombs of Baghdad with a new four-legged partner.

By Ted Katauskas June 1, 2013 Published in the Summer/Fall 2013 issue of Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine

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Ryan Millbern, on a break from checkpoint duty in Iraq, with his former Vail canine partner, Star, in Gypsum this past March

Ever since I was a little kid, I always wanted to be a canine officer.Pretty much any canine officer will tell you this: your dog is the best partner you will ever have. You can tell your dog all your secrets, all your hopes and dreams, and she will never betray you. Your dog will do anything you ask her to do without hesitation. Toward the end of the three-and-a-half years I spent working with Star as the Vail Police Department’s first canine officer, I didn’t even have to give her commands anymore. Be it a car stop or a search warrant, she would recognize the situation, and all I had to do was give her a look, and she knew what to do. Star was a very hard worker, a great worker. It’s inspiring to know that all she was working for was her ball, a tennis ball on a length of clothesline. I was working for a paycheck, but Star, she would work for hours just to play tug-of-war with me for five minutes. Her dedication to her job only increased my dedication to mine.

I loved serving my community in Vail and Eagle County as a police officer, but I needed to take a break and follow my passion. Two years ago, an opportunity came up with a company called American K-9 Detection Services. They were looking for bomb dog handlers, overseas contractors to staff the canine portion of the US embassy’s security force in Baghdad. I had never run a bomb dog before, but the only people they were interviewing were former military and former police canine handlers, so I interviewed with them and because of my experience in Vail with Star, they quickly hired me on. In May 2011, I was sent to Southern Coast K9 in Daytona Beach to start my new training without Star. Once a dog is trained in narcotics, you can never switch it to explosives, so Star’s retired from police work and living with my wife and daughter at our home in the valley. My new partner, Hexe, is a full-blood female Belgian Malinois. To me, they’re the best working dogs out there, hands down. Hexe proves it every day.

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Millbern on patrol with Hexe in May near the Tigris River in Iraq.

Image: Ryan Millbern

In Baghdad, Hexe and I work with the Iraqi Army at various entry/exit checkpoints at the border between the Green Zone and the Red Zone. The Green Zone is the secure area, and when I say “secure” I mean that it’s more secure than the Red Zone, but it’s not Disneyland. The Green Zone is where all the embassies are located and where most of the Iraqi government workers and their families live. Basically nothing is allowed in without being thoroughly searched multiple times. On an average day, Hexe and I search about 200 vehicles, everything from vintage World War II motorcycles with sidecars to Mercedes sedans to tanks. We call our search area “The Pit.”

A good day in The Pit is any day that’s less than 115 degrees. A good day is a day when no bombs go off. Almost every day we can hear bombs going off in the distance; we’re fortunate in that they’re rarely anywhere near us. But you can hear it, and occasionally you can feel the blast or see the cloud, and it sets the tone: this isn’t training. You are definitely in the game.

I wear a civilian contractor uniform—khakis, polo shirt, combat boots, body armor—and I am armed. In the summer, Hexe wears a cooling vest; it looks very much like a bulletproof vest, but what’s inside are ice packs from the freezer. She also wears boots so that her feet don’t get burned. Hexe lives with me in my CHU—Containerized Housing Unit—it’s basically a metal shipping container that you see on the back of an eighteen-wheeler. She’s with me twenty-four hours a day, sleeps on my bed right next to me. She’s my furry little shadow.

The bond that we have, it’s very special. It’s something that only people who work with a dog and rely on a dog can understand. I first experienced it with Star as a canine officer in Vail, but that relationship is even more intense here in Baghdad because of what is at stake. When we arrived in Iraq and that first bomb went off in the distance, Hexe and I both stopped and briefly looked at each other, and it felt like somehow we both knew what had just happened. There was this one- or two-second connection, and then it was right back to work: we need to find the bomb so that doesn’t happen to us or our friends or the people we’re supposed to protect. I’ve seen Hexe in action, and I know nothing is going to get past her.

Do I feel like I’m in danger? The current level of danger isn’t much greater than it was when I was a police officer in Vail. It’s just a different kind of danger. When I was a police officer in Vail, I might worry that somebody would try to shoot me on a traffic stop. Now I worry about mortars, missiles, bombs, stuff like that. When the duck-and-cover alarm goes off in our compound, we have only a few seconds to get to safety. Most people would run to a bunker with just the shirt on their back, but it’s me and my girl. We’re getting to that bunker together. She protects me, and I protect her. That’s what it means to be K9.

The hardest part of my job? First and foremost, I miss my daughter and my family. I miss Star, too. But I also miss the Vail Valley. When it’s over 140 degrees in The Pit and I’ve worked a twelve-hour shift and I’m trying to eat my dinner, which is not the best food in the world, the happy place I go to is the Ford Amphitheater during a Bravo concert. There’s just nothing better than that. I think about the last time I got a big kiss on the cheek from my daughter. I think about Sylvan Lake a lot. Just clean air, the mountains, snow, being able to hike without worrying about stepping on a land mine or an IED. I miss Colorado. I love Colorado. But I also love my job. And my Hexe.

My life is in her paws. 

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