SRINAGAR: Decades before the martyrdom of Indian Army assault dogs ‘Zoom’ and ‘Axel’, a canine warrior — ‘Backer’ — had made the supreme sacrifice while detecting an improvised explosive device (IED) during the early phases of militancy in the Kashmir Valley in the mid-90s.
‘Backer’, a three-year-old Labrador deployed for road clearance, had sniffed out an IED in Anantnag. But it went off before it could be defused and he suffered fatal injuries, becoming the “first canine martyr of the Indian Army”, as mentioned in an old war diary maintained at the Srinagar-based unit he belonged to, a senior official told PTI.
The sniffer dog was part of the 12 Army Dog Unit (ADU), also known as the Chinar Hunters, and the senior army official belonging to the unit said “brave ‘Backer’ saved the lives of many soldiers and others by sacrificing his own”.
“As per the meticulously maintained war diary at 12 Army Dog Unit, ‘Backer’ was deployed by 1 RR for road clearance and he detected an IED, but it went off. He suffered multiple, incurable injuries and could not be saved. He became the first canine martyr of the Indian Army,” the official said, quoting the war diary description dated 1994.
Militancy began to rear its head in the Valley from 1990. Terrorists use IEDs to inflict large-scale damage and casualties and their detection help save many lives, top Army officials said.
“For us, our dogs are also like soldiers. These four-footed canine warriors are, in many cases, the first responders in counter-insurgency operations and they pursue one or multiple terrorists first. Hence their lives are at high risk but they help save many human lives by shielding, alerting the Army team,” the senior 12 ADU official said.
In the early 90s, even the Internet had not come to India, let alone social media, so the story of ‘Backer’ may not have reached the masses, the way it happened in the case of ‘Zoom’, he said.
The official recalled the martyrdom of Army assault dog ‘Zoom’ who died on October 13 at an Advance Field Veterinary Hospital (AFVH) in Srinagar, located a few kilometres from the 12 ADU, and of another assault canine ‘Axel’ of the 26 Army Dog Unit.
“I was there when ‘Zoom’ was being attended to at AFVH. He had suffered injuries from gunshots, and one bullet was lodged in his neck too. A team of doctors performed a five-hour surgery to try and save his life. We tried our best but we lost our brave soldier,” he said.
During the operation at Tangpaw in Anantnag, ‘Zoom’, who belonged to 28 Army Dog Unit, played a key role in not only identifying the precise location of the terrorists but also in disabling one of them. However, the intrepid canine suffered two gunshot wounds in the process, a senior Army official had earlier said.
Despite being injured, ‘Zoom’ located the other terrorist who had been hiding and returned from the target area before fainting due to severe blood loss. His action galvanised the team to speedily serve justice to the two Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorists, he said.
“His selfless commitment and service to the Nation will be remembered forever”, Srinagar-based Chinar Corps had tweeted soon after his death.
Earlier, after the martyrdom of ‘Axel’, it had taken to Twitter to share the grief with a file photo of the canine trooper: “#ChinarCorps salutes the valour & sacrifice of Army Dog No 74B7 AXEL (Aslt Canine) who laid down his life in the line of duty in Op Wanigambala, #Baramulla on 30 Jul 22”.
Both ‘Zoom’ and ‘Axel’ belonged to the Belgian Shepherd or Malinois breed, preferred for rearing as assault dogs, along with German Shepherds or Alsatians, the Army official at 12 ADU said.
The 12 Army Dog Unit has two assault canines, brothers ‘Cadoc’ and ‘Cain’ of the Malinois breed, both a little over two years old. The official said, “These two Army dogs are very agile, alert and ferocious, and can carry out similar acts of valour as ‘Zoom’ or ‘Axel’ did, whenever the opportunity comes to them.”
“For locating explosives, and search and rescue operations, the Labrador breed is preferred. ‘Mohita’ (six years old) and ‘Moonie’ (one-and-a-half years old) are among our Labrador warriors,” he said.
The official said 12 Army Dog Unit was also the “first dog unit” to receive the Chief of the Army Staff Unit Citation in 1996.
Various other recognitions and awards received by the dogs, canine handlers or others from the 12 ADU, raised in 1990, are displayed or mentioned on wall panels at the unit’s premises located inside the Badami Bagh Cantonment here.
“There are over 30 dog units under the Army across the country. And 20 units are located in areas under the Northern Command. Eight are located in the Kashmir Valley and one in Ladakh, besides other units in Jammu region. Each unit has 24 dogs,” the senior 12 ADU official said.
Asked about their training regimen, he said, “After birth, they are trained for one-and-a-half years at the Army’s Remount Veterinary Corps (RVC) in Meerut and then sent to different units”.
There is a breeding facility at RVC but ‘Cadoc’ and ‘Cain’ were purchased as pups from civilians, he said, adding the canine brothers had been trained to become “ferocious warriors”.
The spirit of loyalty and sacrifice which dogs have symbolised for ages is aptly described in a “K9’s Prayer” written on a poster hung near the main gate of Chinar Hunters, bearing an image of a dog looking towards the heavens.
“Dear God, protect my brave handler, grant your almighty protection; unite my handler safely with the family after the tour of duty has ended; I ask nothing for myself. Amen,” reads the last stanza.