Navy dog handler Casey Kaiwi had a feeling things were going to go south when he and a group of Army soldiers rolled up to a small village in Afghanistan that was suddenly devoid of much of its population.
U.S. forces had taken casualties there before, and higher-ups had said, “We want engineers, we want dogs. We want to clean this place up, ” Kaiwi recalls.
The now discharged sailor, who grew up on the Big Island and graduated from Kealakehe High School, had his dog Pito, a Czech shepherd, who could sniff out improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, buried in the ground.
“We knew things looked really bad from the beginning because the village was empty, and I mean that’s usually your first telltale sign ” of the chance for a firefight, Kaiwi said. “And as we made it through the day, I’d actually joked with one of my (dog ) handler buddies, ‘I bet you by 1500 (3 p.m.) we’re in with these guys.'”
Kaiwi was an hour late.
It was after engineers blew up some dug-in bombs and a dismantled coalition aerial bomb that hadn’t detonated that enemy fighters struck back with small arms, a recoil-less rifle and rocket-propelled grenades.
After helping wounded troops onto a helicopter, Kaiwi made his way back to two soldiers who unknowingly positioned themselves over an IED, which enemy forces then detonated.
Spc. Ryan Cook, 29, with the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team out of Fort Wainwright, Alaska, died in the blast in Takhar province.
Another soldier was seriously wounded.
Kaiwi likened the blast to getting a sandblaster pointed at his face. He sustained a severe concussion. The worst part of his injuries, he said, was traumatic brain injury.
That firefight was on Sept. 18, 2011. A little more than nine years later, on Friday, Kaiwi received a long-overdue Purple Heart at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam with his family present.
Kaiwi, now 35, didn’t want to dwell on the reasons for the delay.
“The hardworking people who cared, you know, were able to make it happen, ” he said afterward. The delay was “due to transfers and things getting lost in translation, I guess is the best way ” to put it, he added.
What’s important for the now former Navy dog handler is remembering Cook and other casualties from that day, all these years later. Kaiwi, who was an “individual augmentee ” who brought added capability to other units, was assigned to the Army.
“I think for situations like this the word ‘grateful’ means the most ” to me, Kaiwi told those present at the Purple Heart ceremony. “Grateful for my family. Thank you.” But Kaiwi made sure to reference Cook, the fallen soldier, at the small gathering.
“I think that continuing to say his name, (I’ll ) make sure that his legacy lives on, ” he said.
Capt. Erik Spitzer, commander of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, said he was “privileged and honored ” to be part of the presentation of Kaiwi’s Purple Heart. “MA1 Kaiwi is one of ours, ” Spitzer said in a reference to his last rank, master at arms first class, and duty station.
Spitzer noted that Kaiwi, who now lives in Waianae, was a security officer with a Pearl Harbor patrol unit before he retired in April.
At the time of his injury in Afghanistan, Kaiwi was a junior sailor and an even more junior dog handler. His dog Pito’s mission was to “find bombs, ” he said, and “he was phenomenal.”
“He loved to find them because to him it was a game, and he loved winning, so, lucky me, ” Kaiwi said.
There were other dogs that day, and “the place was so bad in the first half of the day, we had four different (IED ) responses from the dogs.” Those were blown up with big belts of explosives.
In one compound, U.S. forces found a dismantled joint direct attack munition, or JDAM, a type of aerial smart bomb with a guidance system that’s full of high explosives.
After blowing that up, the group of about 20 Americans, who were accompanied by Afghan soldiers, started taking fire. Kaiwi, who was behind a 3-foot wall, said he had Pito between his legs with one foot over his back to provide some protection.
“You could see the rounds skipping off the wall a foot above us, ” he said. The Americans were spread out about 30 yards and took incoming fire from a recoil-less rifle and rocket-propelled grenades, with one that stuck in the wall but didn’t go off.
A U.S. medic was hit by a round that severed an artery in his thigh, and an Afghan soldier was shot in the head.
Kaiwi said the dog teams were asked to be escorts to a medevac helicopter and helped load injured soldiers aboard. After he returned to the others and approached the spot where Cook and another soldier had taken up a position at a break in the wall, insurgents detonated the IED beneath them, he said.
The blast, with all its abrasive grit, “felt like the worst sunburn you could possibly have, ” Kaiwi said.
IEDs “create such confusion and dismay amongst everybody around you because it’s instantaneous, ” he said. “You don’t see it, and there’s nothing that you can do about it.
“There was a young soldier—he had no clue what had just happened, and he’s running in the opposite direction and that was the first thing I caught once everything went off, ” Kaiwi recalled.
Pito survived but two years after the deployment was diagnosed with blood cancer and died, his onetime handler said.
Kaiwi said the Purple Heart he received represents “the guys who served that day ” and the ones who didn’t get to come home. “When I look at it, it’s not an accomplishment. It’s them and their families, and how much I hold them dear to my heart.”
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