10 March 2014

"Diary of an Israeli Canine Unit"

9 Adar Bet 5774

[Reprinted with permission]

Diary of an Israeli Canine Unit
 by Yekutiel Ben Yaakov  February 25, 2014

B"H

Dear friends,

Find below a small part of the diary I am writing about some of our recent missions and searches with our civilian canine unit in Israel. You can get a bit more insight into what it is we do and perhaps better understand why we have been unable to send you more regular updates in recent months. I assure you it is not due to lack of material to report back about. I may also assure you that it is not due to the lack of need. In fact, we need your help now, more than ever; we need volunteers and we are also in great need of your financial support.

It is not easy to maintain the vehicles, feed and house the volunteers and dogs, pay the trainers and so much more. Having been in the field so much of the last few months, hampered and limited my ability to generate the funds needed. Please read on and consider making a significant contribution at this time, and please do consider volunteering to help us maintain the kennels, patrol and search.

Finding the missing Jews, and the lost, forgotten souls of Israel-

A day or two from the diary of Yekutiel (Mike) Ben Yaakov, the commander of Israel’s Civilian Canine Legion’s two units; one, engaging in security of Jewish towns with patrol dogs, the other: seeks missing people with SAR dogs:

I don’t recall the exact moment when I agreed to embark upon the national mission to find and rescue missing people in Israel with the use of specially trained SAR (Search and Rescue) dogs. As if defense dogs were not enough to keep us more than occupied.

It was approximately three years ago. I am not quite sure what triggered this new “mishugas” –madness which turned into a huge commitment -when I agreed to add this additional area of dog rescue work onto our already impossible schedule and strained budget. I suppose it is like so many other significant moments in a person’s life when one crosses over a border, when suddenly he realizes it is now difficult to turn back. Up until then, we had been strictly raising security dogs to answer the desperate call of many farmers and “settlers” throughout Israel who experience ongoing Arab onslaughts and pillaging. Over the past 13 plus years of our existence, our kennels based in Kfar Tapuach bred and raised hundreds of security service dogs, over 300 guard dogs were placed in “settlements” throughout Judea and Samaria from Maon in South Hebron to Mevo Dotan in Northern Shomron, and in farms and vineyards from Yavniel and Tsefat to Beersheba and Ofakim. We even have a dog on the Mount of Olives. An additional 75 high-standard patrol-dogs have been given to security personnel or volunteer handlers in different towns and farms.

The patrol dogs patrol or respond to suspicious movement as partners with their human handlers. The dog and handler team increase the chance of locating and capturing a terrorist before the terrorist gains entry into a house and massacres innocent Jewish men women and children. The dog and handler translate into the mathematical equivalent of 15 soldiers, and can mean the difference of life or death for the handler as well as for an entire family. Without the dog, the terrorist might never be detected. With the dog, the success odds are multiplied a hundred fold, and the element of surprise shifts against the terrorist. In many cases, such as the massacre of the Fogel family in Itamar, several years ago, the area of penetration into Itamar was known as the terrorists were climbing the sophisticated security fence. Unfortunately the patrol that was sent to check out the suspicious movement was unable to locate the terrorists. A good dog and handler team would most-likely have detected the terrorists hiding only yards away from the patrol. What a pity that Itamar had none of our dogs or handlers at that time.

Our security service dogs and volunteers prevented many terrorist attacks. Our outfit has always and continues to pride itself with our patrol-dog unit. After 13 years of experience in the field and after consultation with more than 15 dog trainers/international experts, we finally reached the working formula to best bring security to the vulnerable towns in Israel; a flexible formula and model that could work for the type of volunteer handlers we work with, who may need to respond to terrorist infiltrations and patrol with the dogs. Our greatest obstacle was and remains educating and exposing the local “settlers” - who are the ones who most need our dogs, to the culture of canines as “service-dogs” and to the priceless role a dog can play in protecting their lives and property. Then, we have to teach them how to properly maintain the dogs and get them to participate in the necessary training exercises to best ready them for the unknown. Interestingly enough, the task of training the new “settler handlers” is almost always much more difficult than the actual training of the dogs for professional response to terrorist attacks. The local “settlers” who receive our dogs and training are usually young struggling farmers, working overtime, with limited funds, large families and a hostile environment - that surrounds them on so many fronts. It is difficult enough to teach the dog-profession to our in-house volunteer handlers and staff, and another thing entirely to train a local “settler-farmer” or security chief on a far-away “settlement” the details of professional service dog maintenance and handling.
In most cases our dogs and services, which include weekly or bi weekly training exercises in the areas where most needed, is offered free of charge or at a significant discount. We absorb the losses as best we can. We don’t have the luxury to fail. We understand that we have to find the customized formula that will work for every given “settlement” security chief, because it will be he, together with our dog, that will need to find and subdue the terrorist. It could take the army from 15 minutes up to an hour to locate and respond to the threat, from the time they are called for reinforcements. In that interim period the terrorists can carry out a massacre of several families, G-d forbid.

Most of these folks who most need our services on the different “settlements” are in no position to foot the high cost of a dog and training on this standard. For us that means the logistics of providing payment and transport for our trainers and experts, vehicles, petrol, in addition to room, board and training for our in-house handlers and kennel staff. Our in-house volunteers are provided with food, lodging training, pocket money-(on rare occasion when we have extra money), and special customized schedules where they can help with the dogs, learn Torah or continue their academic endeavors and education. It is these noble volunteers who not only help raise the dogs in our kennels before they are passed out to “settlers” and farmers in need, and who as well, care for and respond to emergencies with the additional personal dogs they are issued. Today, that could mean feeding and caring for 15 dogs in our kennels and also responding to a terror attack, or patrolling to help prevent an infiltration in a town that has suffered many recent attacks and infiltrations.

It also could mean responding to a report of a missing person, from the point where he was last seen. Naturally, that means that each of these volunteers might have two dogs, one anti-terror and another passive Search and Rescue or cadaver dog. Never a dull moment for our volunteers who never know when or where their next call will come from, and who never know for certain whether they will be sleeping in their modest “volunteer house 84”, or whether they might be sleeping in our truck or jeep somewhere on their next mission to save a life. Worst of all they have to put up with “Mike” barking at them commands to “grab that cage” and lift it on the truck and to move quicker to get their gear ready to run to the next operation.

The diary below covers some of our recent incidents. It has been an incredible period on the SAR and security front, mostly SAR incidents that we responded to, rare in the nature of the calls, as well as in the excess quantity of calls. The dogs in our kennels consist largely of the personal dogs issued to the handlers, the pups we have bred and now need to raise and train for others, or other dogs that we have adopted back into our kennels to be nurtured back to health after suffering injuries, neglect or abuse. Indeed it is not easy to find and teach the volunteers and security personnel on the different farms and “settlements” to offer proper and professional care for the dogs we have given them in the past. There are times that we are forced to take back dogs that we once stationed with different “settlements”. These dogs sometimes require months of rehabilitation before they can be re-stationed in new places with better handlers. These dogs are often the biggest headaches for our in-house volunteers who have to deal with the daily vet care, medicating of dogs that they we will ultimately pass on to new owners. Nobody ever said it would be easy to run such a kennel or to pass and train the dogs, our in-house volunteers or the “settlers” and farmers to become professional dog-handlers. Our flimsy shoe-string budget does not make this already monumental task any easier.

9/11/13 (L’Minyanam)

Shabbat morning 7.20 AM Dan Alon, age 26, left his home in Ashdod, never to return home again. Dan had recently left his engineering school. Dan was unable to meet his tuition payments and was not in good spirits, according to his brother who would join our dog team on the search. Family and police felt his life was in imminent danger and that he might cause harm to himself. There was a phone call signal that stopped at 8.30 PM Saturday night, and that had been in the same basic area until then. Police succeeded in graphing a radius of several Kilometers where his phone would be. The hope was that he would be in close proximity of his phone. The head officer from Ashdod’s volunteer police unit ran the make-shift command center that had been set up in the heart of the radius graphed by police. The volunteer ZAKA unit was out in force when we arrived with jeeps, motorbikes, lights and maps Sunday evening. We were told that police had a helicopter searching from above and cops on horses riding through the various orchards and fields as well as along the Lachish River-bank all within the general radius of the cell signal. The command center was buzzing as they ordinarily are in those first 5-10 hours of most searches.

We arrived on the scene Sunday at approximately 7.00 PM.

My truck was not in good shape and I had about 60 shekels in my pocket and our unit’s credit card that had pretty much been maxed out by then. Our muffler was kind of hanging low and the car was moving slow and making a lot of noise. The noise was getting progressively worse. I was a bit embarrassed to pull up right at the designated command center spot, so I parked across the street. We had our own generator and anyhow the dogs would need to relax away from all of the “balaagan” - commotion. I had no clue how I would feed the crew, buy gas to get back home or how I would fix the vehicle which was getting louder and louder. Why waste time worrying about trivia, every second could be life or death for Dan Alon. Israel is a small country. We have faith and we have a mission. In the end it all seems to work out usually.

I went over to the head guy from Zaka and to the police officer and told them that we are an independent Canine SAR unit available to search wilderness areas and that we have 2 SAR dogs and 2 cadaver dogs on the truck and 6 volunteers at the immediate ready to search. We were greeted exceptionally well. We asked to be allocated search areas where others might be hesitant to search at night due to rough terrain and where we could be put to our best use. The directors of the search said they would map off a few areas and make sure the areas would be as “sterile” as possible, free of other volunteers so that the dogs would have the best chance to indicate if any breathing living person was there off the beaten tracks and trails. Our dogs are trained to indicate in different ways to show us a living person is nearby.

Dan’s brother joined me and off we went searching two nearby fields. Dan’s brother told me that he had not told the police but he felt that maybe we should use a cadaver dog and that he feared his brother might have committed suicide. I told him that the scents of a living person would still be there and that we should hope for the best. A person can easily be alive, even if he has no water for a few days and it had only been the second day since his disappearance. We could always search these same areas with the cadaver dogs, but now let us use every available second to try and find him alive with the SAR dogs. This was not the first or the last search we would meet family members and friends of the missing person who would confide in us and provide us with valuable intelligence information.

At approximately 1.00 AM all of the police and ZAKA volunteers folded up their command center. That is standard policy and we know all about that. One of the things that our unit prides itself in, is that we are there until we find the person or until we have searched under every tree and rock in the relevant area of search designated. Here, when we have the place last seen and the phone signal, we are not going anywhere, every second is vital. We have our vehicles, generator, and strength on our feet to search, we are going to find him or leave when he is reported found by others.

When we had first arrived on the scene, the police told us about Daniel Wessley, another missing person, who for some reason was not being searched for to the extent Dan was being looked for. Was it his age? Is there a selection process that prefers the younger student? The second missing person went missing from merely a few kilometers away and the police gave us his photo as well, “should we happen to come across him.” I thought that it was odd, but here we were already searching so I figured we would continue some searching here, especially since we had a clear phone signal as an aid. I thought it would be easy enough, and then we could move on to the second case, and learn more about Daniel Wessley, should he not be found by time we end the Dan Alon search. The words of the police officer still ring in my ear: “Who knows you may find the second guy too, or one of the many others who have gone lost never to be found in this same area. Pay special attention near the river there are others that we never found.”

Daniel Wessley, age 66. Sick with Parkinson disease and with diabetes, walks with a cane also on psychiatric medication. Not known to show signs of dementia, but can sometimes be a bit confused. Walks regularly in the general area where last seen, near a park not far from his home and not far from beach and river. Left tired, with his pajamas or clothing that he had changed into to go to sleep - Was expected back soon. He went missing Saturday afternoon, was never seen again. Family did not see any reason to suspect suicide or foul play.

After 2-3 hours of searching 3 area searches with “Eisha” and “Seven” the two SAR dogs, and one search with Mia the cadaver dog, we met with police and Zaka to discuss further plans. We sized up 7-8 relevant areas within the signal radius that needed to be searched. We had covered to our satisfaction 3 of them. We had at least four more to go. At this time we were joined by a young lady who was a student in the same engineering college as Dan and she insisted upon joining us for the search. She was a great addition as she would obsessively peek behind any object, tree, hill or rock on our trail. She was magnificent and said she wanted to join our unit. Welcome aboard!

After searching many of the fields between the industrial area and the cemetery, between Dan’s house and the middle of the phone signal area. It was clear we would need to return to the area and to adjacent fields. The brush was thick, there were many dogs and foreign worker’s camped in the brush and the dogs were already too tired to continue, even with regular breaks.

We left the area and parked at a nearby gas station to get some coffee and some rest. At the petrol station a volunteer female municipal-police officer pulled in, told us she would go off-duty from her night shift in a few hours and that she insisted on joining us on the search, as tired as she would be. She too joined us, and would be our sponsor for food, gas, and fixing of the vehicle as the day would progress. Another wonderful volunteer had been enlisted to our unit. Welcome aboard! Say what you want about Israelis but this volunteer spirit is special. Both of the young ladies who joined us were Russian Jewish immigrants and gave us valuable and necessary support that only a local person could provide.

In the morning we set out to complete some of the fields, and we split into two groups. I was with Yoel, and Suchi was with Aryeh and our new volunteer. Nina and Miera had left already. Yochanan was resting and pitching in as driver. We took another break to fix the car and get some lunch, sponsored by our new volunteer, and went to police headquarters to discuss the next areas we would search as well as the other missing person – Daniel Wessley. At approximately 1 PM, while we were showing the new police captain overseeing the searches the next location we wanted to search, and after he explained to us that we would be mistaken to waste our time in the area of our choice, that in his opinion had been more than thoroughly covered by other volunteers, we explained to him that, we don’t rely on others and that we insist upon covering that area. It was then that the police phone rang only to inform the policeman that Dan Alon appears to have been found hanging from a tree, in the very area we insisted upon searching.

The policeman asked us not to notify the family yet until he verifies in person the “find” that had been made by a Breslov Hassid who was randomly looking for a quiet spot to pray. The police officer asked me to escort him to the spot. I politely declined and asked Suchi to detail the find and I decided it was smarter for me to commence searching for our second missing person. Aryeh and I went on to search for our new missing person.

The police would join us together with Zaka soon enough with the police now paying special attention to our leads, after our last one proved to be correct. This time we started our own intelligence division to speak and interview the family and eye-witnesses and we decided to set up our command center, a few blocks from where ZAKA would be, searching areas we thought were more relevant based on our first-hand intelligence information and based on our own experience, focusing on wilderness areas where the dogs could be most useful and leaving the more populated parks for ZAKA and the regular volunteers who came out in large numbers to help with the search. I was not surprised to see the police brass visiting our command center and guiding the helicopters to focus on the areas we were searching. We had gained a reputation over the past day of more or less, non-stop searching with and without dogs.

The police were most impressed with our ability and willingness to search at night after they and everyone else left. What seemed obvious and basic to us, was highly regarded by the others. Why they, too, would not join us in the dark hours of the night is unclear to me. But I am used to it. We had this problem with our own Jerusalem squad who refused to search at night and who would leave searches when they were only first getting interesting. Ironically, I called the Jerusalem squad to join us with 3 of our dogs that were in their hands, explaining to them shortly after we had arrived in Ashdod that we needed them. Not only did they not come, they made it clear that they would try their best to prevent us access to the dogs that were needed. The fire chief who they listened to supported their refusal to join the searches. Obviously we were not going to put up with that nonsense and would eventually take the dogs and equipment that we purchased back due to their refusal to search on this and other searches.

Would we have covered the area that we had next slated to search and where Dan was ultimately found dead, prior to his death? Nobody will ever know. Clearly that area would have been covered with the help of the additional fresh dogs at some point during the night, perhaps 12 hours before he would be eventually found. I did not get the exact final police report and estimated time of death. I don’t want to know. I do know his hand was found in the noose, and that means he tried to save himself when it was already too late. Dan clearly had his doubts and hesitated.

More likely than not, there was ample time to find Dan before he made the final decision to take his own life. Time is of the essence when embarking upon a search. The quality of the vehicles, the dogs, the volunteers are also important. Most important, though, is the heart of the searcher, and his or her commitment to saving lives. For a team member to leave such a search in the first days after reported missing, before all relevant areas were searched is like a fire-fighter leaving the scene of a fire while the building is ablaze. That we remain the only search outfit in Israel that continues the search at night and the following day, forces us to continue to build our unit strong, knowing that this is a “mitzvah” that can’t be done properly and to its fullest by anyone else.

Wessley was never found. It took us more than 2 months to get the owner of a huge abandoned building close by where was last seen to allow us entry to thoroughly search. After trying to secure scuba-divers to search the river near a specific spot where our dogs gave clear indications, now three months later, I have finally decided to bring in private divers. I don’t know if there is any chance to recover the body after so long, and after the drifts into the ocean during the last storm, but if the body is indeed there and entangled under roots and rocks, there may yet be a chance. Tomorrow or the next day we may know more. Perhaps we will bring closure to this case and bring Daniel Wessley to a proper Jewish burial. His family has nowhere else to turn.

WE NEED YOUR HELP –please send a generous contribution to Maginei Aretz LMaan HaZulat – POBox 6592 Jerusalem Israel 91060 or contact us ASAP