And The Three Wise Dogs
Thomas Calabrese — Nicholas Northstar served twenty four years in the Marine Corps before retiring as a Master Sergeant and moving back to his hometown of Apache Junction, Arizona. Nicholas Northstar’s father was a full blooded Apache and worked as a park ranger for the state of Arizona and his mother was a Pima Indian. As a young boy Nicholas spent a lot of time at the Superstition Mountain and Wilderness Area and Salt River Valley. It was during this time that he learned ancient secrets about raising and training dogs from one of the tribal elders. Even though he was still in his early teens, search and rescue teams often called upon him for help in finding lost hikers and injured rock climbers near Peralta Trailhead and Canyon, Lost Dutchman State Park, Fremont Saddle, Miner’s Needle and Circlestone.
It was no surprise that when Nicholas joined the Marine Corps at the age of eighteen that he wanted to be a dog handler. The recruiter told him the best way for that to happen, ‘First thing is you apply for the military occupational specialty of 5811, Military Police Officer and then you can you can put in for 5812, Military Working Dog Handler.’
Nicholas Northstar or ‘Big Nick’ as he was nicknamed by his fellow recruits because he stood six foot five inches and weighed 240 pounds was sent to MP career school at Fort Leonard Wood, an army base in Missouri after basic training in San Diego. He was selected to attend Military Working Dog Basic Handler Course at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas for a six week course. His first duty station was with the Security Battalion, Marine Corps Base, Quantico,Virginia where he became a kennel master. From there he was attached to 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force, 3rd Law Enforcement Battalion, Marine Corps Base Smedley D. Butler, Okinawa, Japan.
Over his military career, Nick served nine deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and his expertise with dogs soon became legendary. Some people even thought that he could communicate telepathically with animals and while some of his ability could be attributed to the lessons that he learned as a boy, many of his uncanny skills were just a phenomenon of nature. On one particular mission, Big Nick was able to direct three combat dogs by hand gestures alone, to sneak behind a Taliban patrol. When he gave the signal, they barked loudly, causing enough of a diversion to allow a squad of trapped Marines to charge forward without sustaining any casualties.
There was another incident when an Afghan soldier intended to shoot Americans while he was undergoing training on an American base. One of Nick’s specially trained canines sensed the increased heart rate and nervous energy of the attacker and his barely audible growl alerted the dog handler who shot the Afghan as soon as he raised his rifle to fire.
Nick got a job as a game warden and manager of the White Mountain Apache animal shelter and because of his Native American heritage he was allowed to live on the reservation land. Life was simple and good for him and he appreciated the peace and solitude of his desert environment. When he wasn’t on patrol, he could usually be found at the shelter.
Hannah Riley a volunteer at the It’s the Pits animal rescue in San Diego called him, “Hey Nick, we picked up 20 dogs from a dog fighting ring in Otay Mesa. I found shelters for seventeen of them. I was wondering if you could take the last three?”
“Since when did I get placed at the back of your calling list?”
“I was hoping that I wouldn’t have to call you at all,” Hannah responded, “You’ve taken the last ten dogs I’ve called you about; I didn’t want to take advantage.”
“I’ve told you before, there’s a lot a land on the reservation and once I’ve had a chance to work with the dogs, I can usually find them a home,” Nick responded, “Those that I can’t are welcome to stay here as long as they have to.”
“I can meet you halfway in Yuma as usual, if that works for you?”
“Same place, the day after tomorrow?” Nick asked.
“Works for me, I’ll be in contact with a definite time,” Hannah said.
There were kennels, corrals and several buildings on a fifty acre parcel of land on the southwest corner of the reservation where Nick employed several tribal members. A small group of animal loving volunteers also came by to help out when their schedules permitted, “Hey Sam, we got three dogs coming in. Do me a favor and get some kennels ready for them,” Nick called out.
A sixteen year-old boy who was sweeping around the buildings replied, “Sure thing.”
Nick met Hannah at the Flying J Truckstop at 1100 hours, “I have two males and one female, they’ve been badly traumatized,” Hannah said.
“Let me take a look,” Nick replied.
Hannah opened the back of the van where there were three separate cages and the dogs were cowering in the back of them. When Nick looked closer, he could hear the growls so he whispered “Easy does it, I’m a friendly.” He made eye contact with one of the dogs, then slowly opened the cage and reached in. When his hand touched the massive head of the Pitbull, he stopped growling. Nick opened the other cages and the dogs slowly crawled out; he then opened the back door to his SUV and pointed and the three dogs jumped in.
“You freak me out every time you do that,” Hannah sighed in amazement.
“When I was a young boy, my dad used to tell me that I had the heart of dog. It took me a while to realize what he meant.”
Nick named the three dogs; Chris, Rudy and Holly and they soon became his inseparable companions. Nine months later, retired Marine Corps Major General Blake Brixton stopped by the reservation, “How are you doing, Master Sergeant?”
“You’re the last person that I expected to see out here, sir,” Nick answered when he turned around.
“Every now and then, it’s nice to be unpredictable.”
“I know that this is not a social call,” Nick surmised.
“Is there someplace that we can talk in private?”
“Affirmative,” Nick led General Brixton to a picnic table at the far end of the exercise area. Chris, Rudy and Holly followed two steps behind and sat down when the two men did. General Brixton reached down and petted each animal, “I see that you haven’t lost your touch.”
“I think I was born to be around dogs,” Nick smiled.
“You were also born to be a damn good marine,” General Brixton added, “Ever heard of Blue Horizon?”
“It’s a private security company.”
“I’ve just been hired by them,” General Brixton said.
“Thanks, what about Fiddler’s Green?” General Brixton asked, “Know anything about it?”
Fiddler’s Green is an expeditionary fire base in Afghanistan built by the Marine Corps 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines in 2009 for Operation Strike of the Sword. It is located off Route 605 in the Nawa-I-Barakzayi District of Helmand Province,” Nick answered.
“I should know about it, I spent most of one of my deployments there,” Nick added.
“My company has just finalized a contract with the Department of Defense to take over security for the province. There will still be some Special Ops units operating in the area, but the regular front line units will be slowly phased out. You’re the best dog handler I’ve ever seen and I would like you develop a sentry and scout dog program for me.
Since this is our biggest contract to date with the government, I’m here to offer you a highly incentivized deal,” General Brixton reached into his pocket, pulled out an envelope and handed it to Nick, “Here’s the details, think about it.”
“How much time do I have?”
“I’m moving quickly on this, I can give you twenty-four hours. I’ll be back tomorrow, same time,” General Brixton said.
General Brixton was a man of his word and returned to the reservation exactly when he said he would, “Well Master Sergeant, made a decision?”
“I have sir…and I must respectfully decline your offer,” Nick stated without hesitation.
“Was it about the money?”
“No, you were more than generous, a different time and place and I’d have been on it in a heartbeat. I’m just getting things organized around here and I wouldn’t feel right bailing out now. It wouldn’t be fair to the people counting on me.”
“I’m disappointed, but not surprised. After I saw this place, I didn’t figure you’d want to leave, but I had to start at the top and work my way down,” General Brixton turned to walk away.
“Excuse me, sir,” Nick stated, “I made a few calls last night to some of the Marines that I served with and told them you were looking for dog handlers. One of them is retired Gunnery Sergeant Clyde Jason. I did two deployments with him and he’s a damn good man. He’s currently living in Carlsbad with two kids in college, which means he could probably use some extra cash.”
General Brixton gave Nick a double-take who quickly responded, “Don’t worry, I didn’t mention anything about money. You can work out your own deal with him.”
“Thank you Master Sergeant,” General Brixton said.
“One thing that I can do for you though is train dogs. I’ve got access to high quality German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois as well as other breeds.”
“I’ll remember that.” General Brixton replied.
“If you pay for the dogs, I’ll do the training for free. If things work out, you can make a charitable donation to the sanctuary.”
This was in June 2017 and by the end of the year, Nick had trained three teams of dog handlers for Blue Horizon. He had the unique ability to assess the strength and weaknesses of each dog and handler and match them perfectly. He combined his combat experience in the Corps with his intuitive nature with dogs and developed an innovative six week training program. When the dog handler teams left for Afghanistan, they were fully prepared to fulfill their mission.
Blue Horizon continued to expand their control throughout the Helmand Province and by March of 2018, there were seven dog handler teams operating in the area. Outfitted in special assault vests capable of deflecting shrapnel and knives, these dogs discovered and recognized explosive devices, searched buildings and provided intelligence via camera links. In addition to the skills listed above, they were also trained to work in silence to aid in the detection of snipers, ambushes and other enemy forces within a particular locality. The dogs that Nick trained were also able to detect the presence of the enemy at distances up to 1,000 yards.
Things went much more quickly than anybody could have imagined and by the summertime of 2018 Nick had expanded his staff and facilities. He developed specialized training programs for law enforcement agencies and private clients. His staff included a full time office manager who set up training schedules and booked clients months in advance. Nick kept his touch with all of his dog teams and clients to make sure that there were no problems and to provide assistance if needed. If a dog became hurt and unable to perform his duties, the dog handler could return the animal to Nick and train with a new canine partner. If the injured animal was incapable of returning to full duty, he was retired and put up for adoption. If he wasn’t adopted, he would remain at the shelter and be taken care for his remaining days. Nick would never put a dog down unless the animal was terminally ill and in so much pain that it would be cruel to let him suffer and even then he agonized over the decision.
Every employee and volunteer of the shelter and Superstition Mountain Training Facility felt the same way, otherwise they wouldn’t be there. Nick worked out an agreement with local veterinarian, Molly Spencer to come out every week to do routine examinations of the animals. Over a period a time, their relationship grew from strictly professional to close friends and seemed destined to move to the next level.
After her weekly visit, Molly stopped by the obstacle course when Nick was working with a group of dog handlers to give him a status report, “Nothing out of the ordinary.”
“I appreciate your hard work. Thanksgiving is coming, have you made any plans?” Nick asked.
“Nothing definite, my family lives in San Marcos, California and I usually go home for either Thanksgiving or Christmas. I haven’t made up my mind which one I’m going to do this year.”
“If you decide to stay then I’d like to invite you to spend it here. The volunteers, employees and some of their families are getting together. They would really like it if you would join us,” Nick offered.
Molly asked, “ Thank you, if I decide not to go to California, I’d love to come.”
While Nick and Molly talked; Rudy, Holly and Chris led the other dogs through the obstacle course.
On Thanksgiving Day, a dozen tables were set up with canopies over them. There were five different kinds of cooked turkey that included; roasted, smoked, deep fried, grilled and bacon wrapped. There were trays of side dishes and over a dozen different kinds of pies, cakes and deserts, but before anybody ate, they joined in to fix some bowls of ground beef and turkey for the dogs. Several televisions were set up so that guests could watch football games or Hallmark movies. After a festive day of good food and socializing, Nick looked at his wristwatch as he sat next to a fire pit while eating a slice of pecan pie with whipped cream, “It is exactly 1600 hours and I want to go on the official record as saying that this is my best Thanksgiving ever.”
Molly smiled, “It’s at the top of my list too.”
“I wasn’t talking just about the great food.”
“Neither was I,” Molly smiled.
Things were not so serene and peaceful on a mountain range 7800 miles away in a country called Afghanistan. Things had been surprisingly peaceful for the last few weeks and the combined patrol of Blue Horizon civilian contractors and Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance Marines had finished their grid search and were on their way back to the firebase. Clyde Jason and his scout dog Jackie were in the lead when the dog stopped and growled softly, “Hold up!” Clyde Jason said to the men behind him.
The Americans instinctively scanned the area, looking for anything out of the ordinary, when suddenly mortars and rocket propelled grenades rained down on them. Moments later, machine fire riddled the area. Everyone took cover while searching for a target to return fire. When the radioman tried to call in air support, “They’re jamming our signal.”
“Find an open channel!” Sergeant Nellis ordered, “and do it fast!”
For six hours, the Americans held off the enemy even though they were vastly outnumbered. Eventually as their casualties mounted and they ran out of ammunition, the Taliban force were able to move closer. Clyde Jason was wounded in the leg during the firefight and it was only a matter of time before the Americans were overrun so he turned to Jackie, knowing that the Taliban would kill him if they were captured, “Go!” Jackie took off at a full sprint with small arms fire chasing him down the hill until he disappeared from sight.
Nick’s internal alarm clock awakened him every morning about 0400 hours and he lived by the philosophy that ‘If the sun rose before he did then he had overslept’. He got dressed and went out to the kennels with Rudy, Holly and Chris right beside him. Nick loved the peacefulness of this part of the day and was savoring the moment when his cellphone rang. He looked at the caller I.D. and answered it, “Good morning General, you’re up early today.”
“I’ve got a problem.”
“Anything I can do to help?” Nick asked.
“I was hoping you’d say that.”
Molly was at in her office at the Apache Junction Veterinary Clinic when Nick suddenly appeared in her doorway, “I hope I’m not disturbing you.”
“Not at all, I was just catching up on some paperwork,” Molly replied.
“I have to leave town.”
“Where are you going?” Molly asked.
“Overseas,” Nick answered.
“I hope it’s nothing serious.”
“I won’t know until I get there,” Nick then added, “If something happens and I don’t make it back, I’d appreciate it if you would look out for the animals.”
Molly sensed the seriousness of the situation, but didn’t want to pry, “I was hoping for the first of many and not a one and only.”
“What are you talking about?
“Remember when we said how much we enjoyed Thanksgiving?” Molly asked.
“Yeah,” Nick answered.
“I’m spoiled now, I’ll be expecting that every year now. If you’re not here, that won’t happen.”
“Roger that,” Nick grinned.
Molly got up from her desk, walked over to Nick and affectionately embraced him, “You better make it back.”
General Brixton and a reaction team were in the Blue Horizon company jet when it landed at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and taxied to a private terminal and began to refuel. Nick handed three large travel bags to a member of the flight crew then boarded the plane with his three dogs.
It was a 16 hour flight and once the plane was airborne and reached the cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, the men began working on their strategy. “We received a message from the Taliban that they will execute the hostages on Christmas Day if we don’t begin withdrawing from Firebase Fiddler Green within the next 72 hours,” General Decker said.
Nick looked at the map on the table and saw where the last known location of the men was marked. It was five miles from the Hindu Kush mountain range, “When I was deployed, this area was a Taliban stronghold. I assume nothing has changed?”
“They’ve got an elaborate tunnel complex that allows them to attack us then escape into Pakistan,” General Brixton shook his head in frustration, “ Can’t bomb them from above and we can’t get close enough without being spotted by their sentries.”
“Where is Jason’s dog?” Nick asked.
“He’s at the firebase; he won’t let anybody get near him.”
“I’m going to catch some zzzzzz’s , I’m going to need it.”
When they reached Firebase Fiddler Green, General Decker gave the order to begin moving non-essential equipment off base, so as to give the impression that he was complying with the ransom demands. Nick and his dogs found Jackie hiding under a truck, “C’mon boy, we’re friendlies.”
Jackie crawled out and Nick gave him a big hug as Rudy, Holly and Chris nuzzled up against him, “We’re going after your master.”
The ten man rescue team was outfitted with assault weapons, sniper rifles, C-4 plastics explosives and light anti-tank weapons. The weather was extremely cold so the men put on their high tech cold weather gear. Nick placed battery operated heating vests on the dogs to keep their cores warm and booties on their paws to protect them when they traveled over rocky terrain.
“We’ll travel by night to avoid detection and find concealment during the day,” Nick briefed the team.
When night came, the team exited the perimeter of the firebase and put on the night vision goggles and Nick put specially outfitted glasses on all four dogs then took the lead. Travel was slow and the team remained hidden the entire next day among a group of large boulders. They eventually reached the outskirts of the Taliban stronghold two nights later.
“I’ll make my way to the cave entrance and radio back just before dawn before I go in. If the mountain doesn’t block my signal, I’ll send you a situation report once I’m inside. If I can’t get through, then you need to commence your attack exactly seven minutes from my first transmission, no later, no sooner, got it?”
“Affirmative, you’re not going in alone, are you?” Mike Harmon asked, “That’s crazy!”
“Hell no, I’m going in with these guys,” Nick pointed to the four dogs.
Nick and the four dogs crawled silently in the still of night, barely making a sound until they got within 25 yards of the cave entrance. Nick took off the protective booties of the dogs and replaced them with ones that had razor sharp talons attached to them. He whispered to the animals, “On my signal.”
Nick waited until the first light of dawn, looked at his watch and radioed back, “Going in.” As he approached the entrance, he saw two Taliban guards and took them out with accurate headshots. Nick pointed to another guard and tapped Rudy on the head, “Go.” Rudy took off at a full sprint and bit the terrorist in the neck and severed both the internal and external carotid arteries.
When he entered the cave, Jackie immediately picked up the scent of his master and led the way. When Nick heard the gunfire and explosions outside, he knew that seven minutes had already passed and he would have to quicken his pace if he was going to reach the hostages before they were killed. As he rounded a bend, he shot two more Taliban fighters as the dogs eliminated four more.
Jackie ran over to his master, who was lying on the ground next to several other men and began licking his face. Nick walked over and commented, “Ready to go home?”
“What do you think?” Jason sighed in relief
Nick helped Jason to his feet and put him over his back, as the other hostages fell in behind them and they made their exit. When the battle was over, helicopters landed and the rescue team and the hostages climbed aboard. Mike Harmon pressed the radio controlled detonator and the cave complex imploded when the choppers were airborne.
Medical personnel began treating the wounded inside the aircraft as Nick embraced his dogs, “Good job.”
Molly went to San Marcos, California to spend the holidays with her family, but she wasn’t in a festive mood because she was too worried about Nick to have a good time. The family was opening presents on Christmas day as she sat off to the side and watched with disinterest.
There was a knock at the door and Molly’s father got up to answer it. A few seconds passed before he called out, “Molly, it’s for you.”
When Molly came around the hall, she stopped dead in her tracks when she saw Nick and his three dogs standing in the doorway. “We had such a good time at Thanksgiving that I thought maybe we should give Christmas a try.”
Molly instinctively rushed into the powerful arms of the animal loving former Marine, “Roger that!”
As things turned out, Christmas 2018 turned out to be the best ever for Molly, Big Nick and The Three Wise Dogs.