ASHTABULA — War is hell — for animals and people.
This is particularly true for the dogs and the soldiers who have served together in Iraq and Afghanistan since Sept. 11.
U.S. Army Sgt. David Varkett, an explosive canine handler from Ashtabula, served from 2005 to 2015. For the final leg of his journey, Nouschka, a bomb-sniffing Labrador retriever, worked alongside him.
“I joined the Army because of the events that unfolded on 911,” he said. “When I first signed up I had no idea what to expect. The war on terror was heavily televised but I was not sure if it was an accurate depiction.”
When stationed in Iraq, Varkett encountered small pockets of resistance but nothing major. He decided he could make more of a difference if he joined special operations as a canine handler. After a year of training, he and Nouschka were sent to Afghanistan.
“I thought it would be similar to Iraq but with mountains. I was wrong. It was completely different,” he said. “When my dog and I got off the plane it was like something I had never seen before — sharp pointed mountains with snow on top as I am standing in a warm desert. I knew at this point, my mission would push me harder than ever before.”
Afghanistan provided Varkett and Nouschka with their fair share of adventures and life-changing experiences.
“Each one was a learning experience for us as a team,” he said. “They taught us a lot about life and to enjoy every moment we can.”
The adventures started on the day they arrived at their outpost. Varkett was training on the base to get his dog familiar with the terrain and the local explosives being used against them. As they were training, Varkett heard this loud hiss noise go over top of them and explode about 30 yards away.
“Nouschka and I took cover next to a wall and, as we took cover, the wall in front of us exploded causing rocks, thick mud and dust to cover us,” he said. “We found out terrorists were shooting rockets blindly into the base. We gathered ourselves, retrieved some of the rocket residue and pieces and used them for more training.”
Another operation took them into a village that didn’t have many entrances or exits and required long searches through roadways, fields and bridges.
“We were mounted in our vehicles going down a major highway,” he said. “Fifteen minutes into the operation we had our truck get hit with an improvised explosive device that was manually triggered by a tether attached to a car driven by the terrorists. The vehicle that we were driving was not disabled but we did take some damage.”
They quickly eliminated the threat and continued the mission.
As they continued their search, they changed patterns to avoid repetitiveness because they knew the enemy was watching them.
“The entrance to the village was a bridge over a culvert almost like a sewer runoff,” he said. “As I was looking into this village, I casted Nouschka to the bridge and right as she was trying to tell me there was something there. My eye caught a battery, wires and detonation cord sticking out of the left side of my foot.”
Varkett was standing on a pressure-initiated improvised explosive device.
While not moving his foot, he used hand and arm signals to cast Nouschka around him to see if there was more than one explosive in the area. She did not indicate any others, so he placed her in the down position under a tree using hand and arm signals.
“At this point, I was weighing my options as I could not push off or it could cause an explosion; I felt that it might explode if I took my foot off of it,” he said. “As my teammates approached, we came up with a plan to remove the dirt around my foot and use some of the tools to get a better look at the device.”
Before they did anything, Varkett removed some of his gear and handed it off to allow him the best chance of running out of the way.
“What took about 15 minutes felt like a lifetime,” he said. “I could smell the air, I said a prayer and thought about my family.”
Varkett asked an Afghanistan Special Forces operator to say a prayer.
“I could smell the dirt and hear every noise around me, my senses were clear and I was making peace with myself and God as I was unsure how this was going to end,” he said. “As the operator was assisting me — on his belly right next to my foot — he said, ‘We are good man, I got it.’”
Varkett trusted him and the two of them counted down and ran.
“Right as I stepped off to run I lowered my head, as I lowered my head there was a snap. That snap was the enemy taking a shot at us as we left the pressure plate,” he said. “Now, as I ran to the truck, which I don’t remember running, I felt the cool air from the cab of the truck rush through me. I drank some water and put Nouschka in the cab to cool off [she ran with me].”
As they extracted the pressure plate they found about 500 pounds of explosives. Under further examination, it turned out Varkett was not heavy enough to set it off and the pressure plate was meant to explode a vehicle.
“I felt relieved,” he said.
When asked how he kept going day-to-day with the necessity of always having to be on alert and on guard, Varkett said, “Grit. It’s the will to keep going and nothing thrown at us will defeat us.”
While civilians may believe that once a soldier is home, it’s over, it’s not over.
“Coming home was another battle, I stayed true to how I was feeling and went through the process of adjusting,” he said. “I still go through it to this day and it’s been four years since I have gotten out.”
Varkett said when people read or hear about the stories like the one he just shared about Afghanistan, they often shy away.
“My goal is to educate those who don’t understand how this all works,” he said. “Some will get it and some won’t, but if I can motivate an individual to face today’s challenges and to live for tomorrow, then I have done my job.”
Varkett often thinks about his fellow soldiers.
“The bond I had and have with some to this day is unbreakable, we pick up where we left off like we just got done seeing one another,” he said. “This bond with other veterans, especially the ones I served with, is unbreakable.”
He did lose friends and people he served with throughout his years in the military, but none while Nouschka searched and cleared the way.
Today, Varkett works and lives in Ashtabula County. He and his wife have six children; a cat named Newt; a 2-year-old German shepherd named Summit, and Nouschka, who is enjoying retirement at 13 years old.