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Rancho Santa Fe Lead Story

Retired from active duty

After his handler was killed in action in Afghanistan, Dino, a Military Working Dog was allowed to be adopted by fallen Marine’s family

CAMP PENDLETON — Sgt. Jonathan Overland didn’t serve with Staff Sgt. Christopher Diaz under any deployment. He’d only known him for a week when they worked together at March Air Force Base.

But there’s a strong tie that binds the two Marines together — a 65-pound Belgian Malinois military working dog named Dino.

In 2011 Diaz and Dino were deployed to Afghanistan.

On Sept. 28, 2011, Diaz, 27, was killed by an IED while supporting reconnaissance units in Helmand Province.

Overland, a dog handler stationed at Camp Pendleton, has been caring for Dino since October of last year. That was until last Saturday when Dino was retired from active duty and allowed to be adopted by the Diaz family.

“After that one week of meeting him, just knowing him, there’s a lot of Staff Sgt. Diaz in Dino,” Overland said.

An experienced dog handler, Diaz was one of only a few to be selected to participate in a pilot program training military working dogs with the Israeli Army.

Dino, now 7, was born and trained in Israel and responds to commands in seven languages, including Hebrew and English. As a specialized search dog Dino has the ability to spot out explosives and drugs.

Sgt. Jonathan Overland, left, talks with Sandra Diaz and Salvador Diaz about how Dino likes to be pet and the food he likes to eat.  Photo by Tony Cagala
Sgt. Jonathan Overland, left, talks with Sandra Diaz and Salvador Diaz about how Dino likes to be pet and the food he likes to eat. Photo by Tony Cagala

For Dino’s age, it’s pretty unique that he’s being discharged, Overland said. Since Diaz passed away, Dino was never redeployed and has been stationed at 29 Palms and Camp Pendleton.

“Whenever a handler falls we try to get the dog to go to the family,” Overland. “Most of the time it happens, sometimes it doesn’t — due to the fact that he’s so young. That’s why it took him so long because when (Diaz) fell, I think (Dino) was four, and that’s just way too early to give a dog up,” he said.

Overland said a typical service span for these dogs is about 10 years.

Arriving from El Paso, Texas before the ceremony, Diaz’s parents Salvador and Sandra, with cousins from California, received Dino.

“It’s a healing process for our sons, for Christopher’s children — he has an 8-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter — so that’s going to help them,” his mother Sandra, said. “It’s going to help our families because it was such a shock that…you see your child there and then he’s not there. But this is going to help,” she said.

“It’s helpful because we’ve got something to hold onto now,” she added.

“I don’t think it will decrease any of the pain,” Salvador said. “He’s (Dino) not going to replace Christopher, but what he will do is give us a little bit of what Christopher loved and that was the Marine Corps, that was Dino,” he said.

David Barrera served with Diaz in Afghanistan and is now with the San Diego County Sheriff’s department.

“He (Diaz) was one of those guys you always wanted to be around,” Barrera said. “He was younger than me by about, I think, a year and a half, two years, and I always looked up to him.”

Barrera, also a dog handler, gives Diaz credit for training his working dog Sam, a Yellow Lab, who was, as Barrera said, the “worst dog in the kennel.”

It was getting to the point where Barrera’s kennel master was about to send the dog back to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, where many of the working dogs are trained.

When Diaz returned from his Israeli training, he told the kennel master not to send the dog back. “And the way they trained him, the Israeli way, my dog, he ended up becoming one of the best dogs we had,” Barrera said, adding that he has since adopted Sam.

Diaz was just so knowledgeable, Barrera said.

These dogs mean a lot to the handlers and the Marines, Overland said.

“Especially for the handler, but more so for the Marines that we protect. Ever since we were able to implement ourselves in the war in Iraq, we’ve been taking the IED game to a whole new level,” Overland said.

“They’ve (Taliban) had to come out with some off the wall stuff to deter these dogs, and nothing they have works. Our dogs don’t miss,” he said.

As Overland describes it, when the Taliban comes out with a new technique for using IEDs, the handler and their dog figure out what it is, train for whatever that new technique might be, and render it as ineffective as possible.

“It drives the Taliban crazy,” Overland said. “We’re one of their worst enemies because we take their main fighting skill out of the game.”

The bond that forms between dogs and their handlers: “It’s unbreakable,” Overland said.

Prior to Dino being adopted by the Diaz family, Overland picked up a different dog. He’s got to be ready for deployment, he said.

“I was sad to let (Dino) go — hands down my favorite dog I’ve ever been able to handle for as much personality he has…but he’s going to where he needs to go. And that was the biggest plan for us, to get him to go home. And now that he’s getting to go home I’m happy with it,” he said.

“They deserve him, and he deserves to go to that family where he knows part of Staff Sgt. Diaz was there,” he said.


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