Air Force military working dog handler still ‘whispers’

Staff Sgt. Erica McRell, 7th Security Forces Squadron military working dog trainer, was awarded the Bronze Star Medal Jan. 24, 2014, for her acts of heroism, merit and meritorious service she exhibited while deployed to Afghanistan. Courtesy photo

Staff Sgt. Erica McRell, 7th Security Forces Squadron military working dog trainer, was awarded the Bronze Star Medal Jan. 24, 2014, for her acts of heroism, merit and meritorious service she exhibited while deployed to Afghanistan. Courtesy photo

Don Robbins

Ho‘okele editor

Erica McRell, a former Air Force staff sergeant with the 7th Bomb Wing Security Forces, has a knack for being a K-9 military working dog handler.

Staff Sgt. Erica McRell received the Bronze Star Medal in January 2014 for her acts of heroism, merit and meritorious service exhibited while in a combat zone.

During her deployment, McRell and her military working dog Jonny were attached to an Army Special Forces unit. She was the first female military working dog trainer from Dyess Air Force Base embedded with an Army Special Forces unit.

During operations, McRell’s position was lead. She was responsible for locating and isolating improvised explosive devices. McRell and Jonny saved lives by finding more than 50 IEDs throughout southern Afghanistan. Her actions directly resulted in a significant reduction in terrorist activity against local citizens and dramatically restricted the enemy’s ability to operate.

Jonny, a German Shepherd, was the dog McRell was assigned to in Nov 2012 to take to Afghanistan with her.

Although “assigned” is the word used when a handler is placed with a military working dog, McRell said Jonny became so much than just an assigned dog to her. “From the beginning we had a strong bond and it only developed and strengthened. He became my partner, most trusted friend and comrade, and my family,” McRell added.

After McRell left Dyess to move to Fort Bliss, Jonny had to stay there as he was assigned to that installation. In April of 2015, Jonny passed away due to medical reasons, she said.

McRell said she has honorably separated from military service after 9.5 years to now pursue her love of training dogs in the civilian world. She moved to Hawaii this month to work as a “dog whisperer” with a dog training company on Oahu.

According to McRell, she decided to join the Air Force in August of 2006.

“I knew I wanted to do something that would make a difference and give me a sense of accomplishment and I found that with the military,” she said.

She said that she knew from the moment she arrived at basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, that she wanted to be a dog handler.

“I joined the Security Forces AFSC determined to make it to the K9 world. I spent the first two years of my career at Ramstein

AFB, Germany, volunteering and doing work on the side at the K9 kennels there to learn and gain recommendations for the application process,” McRell said.

She then received a permanent change of station to to Lajes Field, Portugal, and continued working with the handlers there until she received approval and a class date to attend military working dog handlers course at Lackland.

After graduating from the course in February 2011, she then had another permanent change of station to Dyess Air Force Base as a military working dog handler.

Following three years at Dyess as a handler and one tour to Afghanistan, McRell applied for a position as a military working dog ground combat instructor for Desert Defender Readiness Training Center, Fort Bliss, Texas.

She has training experience in basic to advanced obedience, detection capabilities, and personnel search. Most recently, she has spent two years not only training dogs, but also training the handlers who are assigned to them.

“Other than official training, I gained knowledge and experience from many people along the way to better my handling and training skills, to include Army, Marine, Navy, Army Special Forces, Navy SEALS and civilian contractors. It has been through my vast array of different branches that I was able to gain so much knowledge and accomplish the things I have,” McRell said.

McRell explained that she was the second woman in the Air Force to attach to a Special Forces unit, the first woman Air Force military working dog handler to receive the Bronze Star, and the second female military working dog handler in the military to receive a Bronze Star.

“The first female to attach to Special Forces was a very near and dear friend of mine, Master Sgt. Cynthia Brown, and Sgt. Zainah C. Creamer received the Bronze Star for her actions in Iraq and for giving her life in 2011,” McRell said.

Being a woman in any job that is predominately male has its challenges, but the ups and downs come and go just as in any other job, according to McRell.

“The challenge comes from being viewed as a weaker mind or physically incapable of completing the mission to a standard. Throughout my years in Security Forces and as a handler/trainer there have been many challenges, but overall it all boils down to the fact that it does take a special type of person and personality to be a woman MWD (military working dog) handler/trainer,” McRell said.

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Category: News