Vision of Vets recently had the honor of capturing Jessie Keller and Chrach together in a portrait. They have an incredible story. Read more below:
By Sue Tone
Tech. Sgt. Jessie Keller, U.S. Air Force, served 13 years of active duty before going into the Reserves, where she is today. She has been deployed seven times – five times to Iraq, and two times to Afghanistan.
Keller’s plan after high school was to go to college and then find work with animals. Instead, she entered the Air Force with a goal of working with the K9 program.
Knowing that it took five years to get into the program, Keller explored other jobs within the Air Force such as field radio telephone operator, driver, and shooting the big “fun guns,” the 240 Bravos.
There were challenges to being female in a traditionally male field. “There wasn’t a lot of females to talk to, and I was kind of an outcast. So immediately coming into any kind of unit with all men, they kind of looked at me as a weakness. I had to prove myself, and I had to really dig deep for them to understand I was there to be a good teammate,” she said. “At the same time, they put me through challenges that really shaped my strength as a female, and I was accepted as one of their brothers. So I wouldn’t take any of that away.”
Working with animals is probably the most rewarding job a person can have, Keller said. Being a dog handler has been the best and the most dearest to her heart.
“It’s a job that many people can’t understand unless you’ve had a dog actually save your life. When the dogs are with you, a lot of people look at them like, ‘Oh, this is a cute, cuddly thing you’re at home with and the kind of dogs that greet you at the door.’ My dog wasn’t a dog. We really don’t like to use that term or the word animal. We say it’s our partner.
“These four-legged partners were there to save us. They went in day in and day out when we were exhausted as humans. But the dogs will go in. They were so excited for life and to work, all for a toy, really, and for the interaction between their handler. They just wanted to play.
“I was able to tell certain things by the way my dog looked, the way he reacted, and I knew when something was wrong and I could go off of that,” she said.
While deployed, Keller worked on missions “outside the wire” where she was typically the only female. In the midst of terrorist activity, everything going on was “very tricky,” she said.
“No matter what type of training you had, no matter how many skills you had, it was kind of the luck of the draw. Are you going to step on a pressure plate that had an explosive attached to it?” This is what Keller lived with during her deployments.
One mission took her and Chrash into an area where a four-person unit had been blown up. She and Chrash were sent in to help find the bodies and also the people responsible.
“I worked with this team numerous times and it was heartbreaking for this camp. It was probably one of the most heart-wrenching times I’ve ever been out with combat. As soon as we landed I saw my team just standing there waiting. They were so excited to see the dog. I don’t know if it was because they were excited the dog was there or if it was because of what we were going to do and that we were there to try to help them out,” she said.
Ultimately, they found the bodies, some weapons and bomb-making materials that day. “We paid our respect, we feel, to the team we lost,” Keller said. “And working with that team and having Chrash greet them right away was probably one of my most memorable moments.”
The K9 partners often have more than one handler. Keller said Chrash’s handlers all worked together and gained knowledge from each other.
Chrash received many awards, among them the Bronze Star and a Combat Action medal. He also earned the 12th Annual Animal Hero Award, “a huge deal,” Keller said. She has a Joint Service Award with him as well as a Combat Action medal.
One of Chrash’s biggest accomplishments was when he was assigned with Special Forces and went out on combat patrols. He located about five IEDs – improvised explosive devices – that weighed out to be about 170 pounds, Keller said. “This dog not only saved a good friend of ours, he also saved the teams behind him and the teams behind that. He found explosives that were ready to detonate if they were to step by. If the team did not have the dog, they would have died.”
Keller worked with another K9 partner, Oscar, who was badly injured by an explosion. Although Oscar performed his duty immediately after the device went off, he was soon retired. Keller credits both Oscar and Chrash for saving her life.
When K9 partners retire or pass away, their handlers and fellow soldiers give them a full ceremony as they would a human soldier.
“They mean so much to us that they’re not animals, that they’re soldiers, that we try to give them as much of a full retirement as a human would. We will do everything from the flag folding, we come in our dress blues – it is an official ceremony where we have protocol, we have base commanders come in,” Keller said. “We make sure we pay the respects to them that they gave to us for all their service.”
In Iraq, one of Keller’s commanders set up an all-female combat unit with 12 women in a unit of 200 men. The women went out on a two-day mission where they were shot at, communications went down, and they had to pull out a broken-down truck.
“We had some kids come and tell us that there was a bomb. We found the bomb and then we had to clear the bomb. We landed a British OD team. We landed a helicopter, and we just stayed out there until the OD showed up and then we detonated the bomb. It was probably one of the craziest moments. And talk about Girl Power. It was the ultimate,” she said.
In the beginning, Keller said she wasn’t very good, she needed a lot of work. But she had a team behind her that recognized her willingness to learn. “It’s not a sport or a job that you can do on your own even though you think you have you and this dog. It’s a whole team environment to get where you want to be in life.”
“I couldn’t show any fear because, one, I was a girl and I knew they’d eat it up. Second, we’re leading the team and I couldn’t have them think I was nervous, because if I’m nervous, they’re going to be nervous. And if you’re nervous, the dog feels it and it can really reflect on the dog. So you have to go out there and you have to trust the dog, you have to trust you’re going to come home, and you just got to enjoy life. I’d like to think that’s how it went.
“You go out every day and you’re worried you might step on something. No matter how good the dog is or how good your team is, you could have been chosen that day where you set that device off. That was probably the hardest part. Sometimes it’s just the luck of the draw. So every day I knew that I might not come home. That makes you think a little differently and you take things a little bit lighter in life.”
Keller currently is going through firefighter training in the Air Force Reserves. This might develop into search-and-rescue work, she said. “I really like having a partner with four legs. There’s just something about it.”