Digger was rescued from the Sydney Dogs and Cat Shelter in April 2006. He was one of only 4 dogs (out of approximately 20 dogs recruited) to pass the Royal Australian Engineer Explosive Detection Dog course in 2006.
RTF 3 (September 07 – April 08)
Once he passed the EDD course he was teamed with me, Lance Corporal Graham Ellis. I was also the handler that trained him. We were both posted to the 3rd Combat Engineer Regiment (3 CER) in Townsville. During our time at 3 CER, we were deployed to Afghanistan for the first time as part of the Reconstruction Task Force 3. This deployment was based in Tarinkot the capital of the province of Uruzgan.
During our time there we were mainly involved in conducting high-risk searches of routes, buildings, fields, vehicles, caves and anywhere else the Australian troops wanted to go. It was our job to go before anyone else due to the deadly threat of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). On this deployment, Digger had a number of finds including a very large quantity of homemade explosives, several caches of weapons and ammunition including a number of Claymore mines.
Although Digger was a trained EDD he was still a Kelpie and the first time he saw sheep he started to tremble with excitement, when I let him go his instincts kicked in and he rounded them up in quick time. The young girl who was the shepherd was not too pleased and was throwing stones at him, but she was not much of a shot and missed him every time. This started Digger’s love of rounding up livestock and he would try it with any animal including goats, sheep, cattle and even ducks.
In 2009 Digger and I was posted to the Incident Response Regiment (IRR) in Sydney. The IRR was part of the Special Operations Command of the Australian Defence Force. During our time at the IRR and due to the specialized type of work, both Digger and I had to be trained to work with helicopters, assault boats and other various types of in-fil and ex-fil vehicles and craft. After successfully completing many courses and gaining the specialized skills needed to work with the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) and the 2nd Commando Regiment (2 CDO) we were attached to the Tactical Aid Group – East (TAG-E) for Domestic Counter Terror (DCT) duties. This included looking for weapons that had been cached within Sydney by a terrorist cell that was planning an assault on the Holsworthy Army base in Western Sydney. On one such search, Digger found a small cache of ammunition hidden within the parkland.
SOTG Rotation 12 (January-August 2010)
2010 found Digger and I back in Afghanistan, but this time as part of Rotation 12, Special Operations Task Group TF66 (SOTG). This was the EDD team’s second deployment to Op Slipper but this time it was in a very different working environment. As part of the SOTG they would be targeting the Taliban commanders/leadership of the region to help the people of Uruzgan have a normal and peaceful life.
It was Digger’s first mission in country with 2 SQN SASR, and we had taken off and were on our way to capture a Taliban leader in a village not far from the base. We had been flying in the chopper for about 15 minutes when the 30 seconds signal before we landed. The helicopter flew over the village and we immediately recognised the target person we were looking for, as he only had one leg and he was also the only person trying to run away.
After landing we made our way to the target’s house to search for weapons, explosives and ammunition. We searched the house and adjoining cow sheds and buildings but found nothing. The next place to look was the garden and the orchard. On searching the orchard Digger indicated a small hole at the bottom of the wall that encircled both the garden and the orchard. I told the Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) Tech to have a close look at the hole. Digger and I carried on searching the rest of the remaining gardens. I got a shout from the EOD Tech that Digger had found a very flashy pistol in an old-style cowboy holster. This was great news because all the Taliban leaders used to carry this type of weapon, I suppose it was some kind of status symbol. We finished searching the rest of the compound and some of the buildings nearby and then we were called to come to the extraction point to be picked up and returned to base. That was our first operational search as part of Field Element-Alpha (FE-A) and we had a great first day, we had found the Taliban commander’s weapon and also the SASR had captured the target. 100% success rate!
During that tour, Digger found 16 caches including a significant number of Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG), weapons, ammunition and over 60 kilos of homemade explosives used in IEDs, Vehicle Borne IEDs and Suicide Vests, all used by the Taliban to target the local population and the Coalition Forces. As we were attached to the SASR Troop we were working with the ADF’s best and most professional soldiers. In the 8 months, we were on operations during that deployment, Digger and I had the honour and pleasure of working with 2 Victoria Cross winners. The first was Mark Donaldson, who himself was a K9 handler for the SASR on previous tours. The other was Ben Roberts-Smith, who won his VC on this deployment during the Shah Wali Kot Offensive, which Digger and I were also part of.
SOTG Rotation 17 (January-August 2012)
2012, again Digger and I returned to Tarinkot, this time attached to 3 SQN SASR as their Explosive Detection Dog Team. Our first mission was not with the SASR but with the 2nd Commando Company. The weather was still very cold and we were attached to the Sniper Section providing over-watch for this mission. This meant we would be up in an elevated position so the Snipers could take out any Taliban that may threaten the Commando’s working in the villages below.
As I said the weather was extremely cold and the ground was frozen. This is not ideal for finding buried IEDs, weapons, ammunition or explosive caches. The position chosen for the Sniper section was in some old abandoned Russian fighting pits and trenches sighted on a large hill above the target villages. These trenches and pits had been used by the Commando before on a previous mission so there was a very high likelihood that the pits and trenches would contain IEDs or booby traps to kill any Australians if they were re-occupied again. This exact position was where a mate of mine and fellow SOER Sapper Rowen Robinson had been killed just over six months before when he was shot by a Taliban Sniper.
We were dropped off by the US Marines Corps in their half aeroplane half helicopter V-22 Ospreys, about five kilometres from the villages and patrolled to our designated position. The hill was extremely steep and rugged. One thing that stood out immediately to me, was the fact that it had bushes and other vegetation growing on the slopes and top. This never happens in Afghanistan because the locals would graze their livestock anywhere there is anything green. This could only mean one thing, the whole hill, trenches and pits would be littered with IEDs.
Digger, myself and another Sapper took over the lead when we got near the top of the hill. Digger went forward and into the old trenches. He was hard to see as it was 0400HRS in the morning and still dark, but I had an Infra-Red (IR) Cyalume stick on his harness so I could use my Night Vision Goggles (NVG) to see where he was and what he was doing. Digger was searching like a champion, head down tail up, I followed him into the trenches but kept a five-meter gap between him and myself just in case he missed something or initiated an IED. We had to work at a good pace as we needed to get the trenches and pits searched to get the Snipers in place so they could cover the Commando teams in the villages below.
The main trench was set out in a large circle that went around the top of the hill, and there were seven or eight smaller trenches radiating off the main trench, at the end of each smaller trench was a fighting pit that would accommodate two people and this looked directly down onto the villages below. Digger and I had searched most of the positions and found the remains of goats/sheep that had set off some of the IEDs that had been placed by the Taliban in case we came back to re-occupy the position. It was quickly getting light as Digger indicated to one of the fighting pits, I called him back to me and then I went up and placed an IR marker where he had indicated the presence of an IED. I relayed the information to the EOD Tech and he set his charges and blew it in place. This happened another two times, Digger found a total of three IEDs all of them in the fighting pits at the end of the trenches.
Digger, myself and the rest of the small SOER team had had a very successful start to the day, we had searched all the trenches and pits so the Snipers could do their work. Digger and I spent the rest of the day sitting in one of the pits huddled together trying to keep warm as it was still well below freezing on this exposed hillside. Every now and again our Snipers would open up in support of the lads fighting in the valley below, just before dusk and with the sun in our eyes the Taliban Sniper took a few well-aimed shots at our position, the rounds went just over our heads. Our Snipers returned fire but he had the advantage of us facing direct sunlight and this made it very hard for our lads to hit him. He was last seen speeding away on a motorbike.
Once it was dark we started our ex-fil out to the LZ to be picked up by the Marines and their V-22s. Digger and I had had a great day, he had found three IEDs, and everyone still had their arms and legs, and we were going back to have a good feed and get warm!!! Happy times.
One of the most memorable searches Digger and I did was on 31 May 2012. We were headed to a place called Langhar Valley about 20 Klm’s SE of Tarinkot. The intelligence picture was FE-A (SASR) was to target a Taliban leader who was known to have a large cache of weapons, explosives and ammunition, locate and destroy it if possible. This area had been targeted on many occasions before but the Person of Interest (POI) had escaped and the cache had up till then never been found.
Langhar was a large “Y” shaped valley, so FE-A was to spilt up into three and each takes an arm of the valley and then meets up in the middle. As the SOER team attached we would be split into two. Digger, myself and the EOD Tech (SGT W) would be one search team and the three remaining Engineers would be the other team.
As soon as Digger, SGT W and I landed, we started searching compounds for any caches, but after about 20 mins a call came over the radio that the other SOER team had found a bigger than a normal number of weapons and wanted our help to further exploit the location. We made our way across the valley to their location, when we got there we were surprised by the size of what they had found. The second team searched one of the three compounds in the vicinity, Digger, myself and SGT W then started to search the other compounds.
I let Digger off his lead and pointed him into a cow shed, where he started to indicate straight away, and he seemed confused as if he couldn’t pinpoint the source of the odour. I called him back and then got out my Mine Detector, I waved it over the floor in the cow shed and it was signalling that the whole floor contained metal. I picked up a shovel and started to dig a hole, after removing the top 10 centimetres I hit something metal, it was a Chinese 82mm Mortar Bomb. I carried on digging and it was apparent that the Mortar Bombs were in four layers across the whole floor of the cow shed. I informed SGT W about what I had found and he asked if Digger and I could move to another compound and start searching there.
Digger and I entered the next compound only to see tell tail signs that there would be more of the same. In one of the rooms were large green wooden boxes that used to contain Russian AK-47s and their ammunition. That was a bit of a giveaway, but I let Digger go again, and he ran into a stable and it was the same story as before. He immediately indicated that there was something there, I started to move the straw and found Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG) and boxes of 7.62 AK ammunition. We moved from room to room and again the whole compound was a weapons and ammunition cache. Over the radio, I heard that SGT W had found a hidden room that contained hundreds of RPGs, boxes of ammunition, five Anti-Tank Missiles and three Ground to Air Guided Missiles. This find was huge. It was clear that we didn’t have enough of our own explosives to destroy this enormous cache. A message was sent back to Tarinkot to send out more SOER Sappers and a large number of explosives to blow up everything we had found.
When the choppers arrived with the additional SOER Sappers and explosives they were engaged by the Taliban that was on the nearby hillsides. These in turn were engaged by the US Apache Helicopters that escorted the Blackhawks, the Apaches and the SASR soon suppressed this threat.
The SOER Sappers got to work preparing the cache for destruction, while this was going on Digger and I kept searching. We moved into the living quarters of the last compound, it was the usual layout of an Afghan lounge room. At one end of the room was a shelf about waist height with large and medium-sized cushions stacked on it, the walls were hung with sheets of material. Digger went straight up to the far end of the room with the shelf where he started to indicate to the piles of cushions, and I pulled them down from the shelf and let him run over them. He indicated to two small cushions, I ripped them open with my knife and threw the contents onto the floor. In the cushions were the following:
- Pistol and holster
- 40 rounds of 9mm ammunition
- A large number of AA batteries, 2x SIM Cards, 1xmobile phone
- 2xA4 photographs of the POI and his brother
- Black notebook, this was the ledger that contained information about who, when and what the POI had passed out (weapons, ammunition and explosives) to other Taliban Commanders
- Blue notebook, this was a code book, each number had a coded phrase or word associated with it
- 1x pink “G” string
- 2x Afghan and Pakistan Passports (POI and his brother)
Shortly after this find the ammunition and weapons cache were destroyed, in total, we found:
- 140,000 rounds of ammunition
- 435 RPG’s
- 5x MILAN wire guided Anti-tank missiles
- 3x Blowpipe Surface to Air guided missiles
- 5x RPG launchers
- Approximately 50x assault rifles
- Approximately 80x 82mm mortars
- Black and Blue code and ledger books
- Photo ID of the POI and his brother
- A large number of weapon magazines and ancillaries
- 1x Pink “G” string
All in all the cache that we found was the biggest cache found by any Australian Force Element in Afghanistan since 2002. The Ledger and the code book were sent to higher command for intelligence analysis and future targeting operations.
Another great day for Digger and me, he had a big day with lots of searching and lots of good finds. Smacko’s all around!!
During this deployment Digger had 29 explosives, weapons and ammunition cache finds, some of the notable ones were,
- 21 RPG warheads, 1x heavy machine gun, 2x RPG launchers, 4x AK-47s, 3000 rounds of ammunition
- 18 Russian hand grenades,
- 2x 107mm Rockets, 9x RPG warheads
- 20 kilos of homemade explosives
- 70 kilos of wet Opium
SOTG Rotation 19 (January-April 13)
Rotation 19 was not a very busy deployment for Digger and me. The whole focus had changed for the SOTG, it was more inclusive of the Afghan Security Forces, Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP). We had to adhere to a strict percentage quota of 25% Australian personnel and 75% Afghan personnel. As we used the US Army choppers to in-fil and ex-fil we were limited to the numbers that could be involved in missions. This impacted the SOER element of the missions, unless the SASR had intelligence that the Taliban would be using IEDs we would not be included in the missions. This was very frustrating for Digger and me as we had had such a successful deployment the previous year.
Digger and I did go out on a handful of missions but found only a number of small caches. Unfortunately, Digger was showing signs of an old injury, he was limping sporadically, I took him to the US Veterinary Officer on base and she referred him to the Veterinary Hospital in Kabul. Digger and I flew to Kabul to see the relevant experts and for him to have an MRI. The Veterinary Hospital in Kabul was enormous, it had all the specialist equipment to treat the injured dogs that unfortunately came in on a regular basis. Digger had his MRI and I was told the bad news. My little mate had four bulging discs in his back and that was the end of his working days. I asked how he would have sustained those injuries, the vet said it was the fact that he was an active working dog and these types of injuries are wear and tear to an active working K9.
We returned to Tarinkot and I started the arrangements to send Digger back to Australia. I also needed a dog to replace him. The process went very smoothly and I accompanied him to Dubai and put him on a plane to Australia. I didn’t see the little bloke until my tour finished in August but by then he was out of Quarantine and back at the EDD Section at the School Of Military Engineering. As soon as I arrived home I retired him and he came home to live with my wife and me.
Digger loved his retirement, we had three other dogs to keep him company, lots of walks, tennis balls anytime he wanted, Smacko’s and lots of pats.
I retired from the ADF in 2016 and we all moved up to the Sunshine Coast, now he had a swimming pool to play in!! He loved the water and as soon as he saw it he was in, although we had to get him a life vest as he was never very good at swimming. He used to get very excited at the splashing water and then forget to swim, so a life vest was to make sure he didn’t hurt his back anymore and also to stop him from ending up at the bottom of the pool.
Unfortunately, my little mate passed away on the 28th of February 2017. I miss him every day, and a lot of people are alive today because of his wonderful nose. He still makes me laugh when I think of him and the sheep, chickens, and anything else he could round up, his love of swimming, although he wasn’t much good at it and his love of helicopters and how he would always get excited when he would hear one because he would be off to work. He was a great little bloke.