Sergeant's job is for the dogs

Staff Sgt. Robert Van Hulle (left) says goodbye as Staff Sgt. Markus Hunt and his military working dog, Diego, prepare to board an aircraft at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on Tuesday, May 9, 2006. Sergeant Van Hulle is the 435th Security Forces Squadron military dog handler liaison. Sergeant Hunt and Diego were returning to Misawa Air Base, Japan, after a six-month tour supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. John E. Lasky)

Staff Sgt. Robert Van Hulle (left) says goodbye as Staff Sgt. Markus Hunt and his military working dog, Diego, prepare to board an aircraft at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on Tuesday, May 9, 2006. Sergeant Van Hulle is the 435th Security Forces Squadron military dog handler liaison. Sergeant Hunt and Diego were returning to Misawa Air Base, Japan, after a six-month tour supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. John E. Lasky)

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany -- Staff Sgt. Robert Van Hulle is a dog's best friend at this busy airlift base. And military working dog Diego, a Belgian Malinois, appreciates that.

The security forces sergeant met Diego and his partner, Staff Sgt. Markus Hunt, when they transited Ramstein on their way home after a tour in Southwest Asia.

That's part of the sergeant's job. He is the liaison for all military dog handlers and their K-9 partners transiting the base. He finds the handler and the dog a place to spend the night and also finds them a continuing flight to their final destination.

Seeing Sergeant Van Hulle waiting was a welcome relief for Sergeant Hunt and Diego, who made the journey in a big kennel.

"There's no way that I could do some of the stuff that he (Sergeant Van Hulle) did for us -- like getting to see the veterinarian and manifesting us onto a flight. You can't do that when you're in transient," the sergeant said. He and Diego were bound for Misawa Air Base, Japan.

Doing that is all in a day's work for Sergeant Van Hulle. He is serving an in-place temporary duty assignment to the unique job from his Ramstein unit, the 435th Security Force Squadron. He sometimes needs to make an appointment with a veterinarian for a dog, whether for certification or medical reasons. And he tries not to separate the team.

"I try to keep handlers on base near the dogs so they can handle them and feed them," Sergeant Van Hulle said.

The job Sergeant Van Hulle does puts the handlers ahead of the game. If transiting dog handlers had to find where everything is on Ramstein and how to accomplish the tasks, it could delay their movement. Delays are not good for the people waiting on a K-9 team to arrive at bases in the war zone.

The K-9 teams have a key and often dangerous job in Southwest Asia. So while they are at Ramstein, Sergeant Van Hulle does his best to make their stay as comfortable as possible.

"It's nice to come here and have a soft bed and a shower and to know my dog is right down the hallway," Staff Sgt. Kameron Bunker said. Sergeant Van Hulle found Sergeant Bunker a room at the dog kennel since there was no room available on base and the handler wanted to stay with his partner.

Air Force handlers are the sergeant's priority, but he helps all the K-9 teams that transit the base.

"If another handler comes through, I'll definitely help them," he said. "The way I look at it, we all do the same job."

The sergeant proved that when a C-17 Globemaster III touched down with 20 Navy and Marine K-9 teams headed for Iraq. After the long flight from the United States, he knew the dogs would need a break. So he asked the air traffic operations center to park the cargo plane next to a grassy area.

A half-hour later -- as other planes taxied by -- the handlers were on the ground, letting their dogs relax and take much needed "nature breaks."

Marine Lance Cpl. David Olivares and his dog, Rex, took the time to relax near the busy tarmac.

"This is great," he said as another plane taxied by. "A break is exactly what we need after an eight-and-a-half hour flight and before continuing to Iraq."

Sergeant Van Hulle hovered around, making sure the teams had what they needed.

"Hopefully they can take off in time," Sergeant Van Hulle said.

But then he shrugged of the statement and said, "Ah, it would be packed but we could make room for them at the kennel tonight."