LITTLE ROCK AIR FORCE BASE, Ark. --
His eyes dart back and forth with curiosity as he moves. On his chest, the Security Forces patch on his vest sways as he confidently strides on all fours next to his best friend.
Meet Ali, a sable German Shepherd, weighing 70 lbs. His best friend is U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. David Macdonald, 19th Security Forces Squadron kennel master at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, who uses his upbringing to train Air Force military working dogs.
“Growing up, I used to help my dad train hunting dogs,” Macdonald said. “I have a passion for the things we can teach dogs to do.”
Macdonald decided to become a civilian K-9 officer. However, he couldn’t apply because of his lack of experience.
“I wanted to be a K-9 cop, but I was too young so I thought about joining the military,” Macdonald said. “I wanted to use the military as a stepping stone. I first enlisted in 2005, two months after graduating high school.”
In March 2010, Macdonald graduated the Military Working Dog Handler Course at Joint Base San Antonio, Texas. Upon graduating, Macdonald received orders to Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi, and was paired with Maci, a black male German Shepherd who specialized in explosives.
TRAINING BECOMES REALITY
Macdonald and Maci received orders to Khandahar, Afghanistan, and they were sent to Forward Operating Base Ma’sum Ghar in 2011. During that deployment, Macdonald developed a deep appreciation for the role MWDs play.
“I went on a mission where I actually got to use my dog,” Macdonald said. “My dog did his job, he did exactly what he was trained to do. It was a remarkable thing for me because it made me realize how important our job is.”
After returning home from his deployment, Macdonald swapped dogs with another dog handler to rehabilitate a dog who had suffered a heatstroke – Ali.
“Our relationship started rough because I hated him,” Macdonald said. “I hated everything about him, I hated feeding him, I hated touching him and I hated pulling him. He even bit me one time.”
Shortly after being paired with Ali, Macdonald received orders to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan in 2013. Macdonald and Ali worked through their differences to prepare for their deployment. Once arrived, they were assigned to a special operations team under U.S. Army Special Forces.
“I got to experience being attached to a 12-man special forces team and what they really do,” Macdonald said. “They were my brothers for six months. They even grew real close to Ali, they always wanted him there because he brought them comfort.”
MWDs experience the same adverse conditions as their two-legged counterparts while deployed. Although they wear vests and other protective gear, they are not omitted from danger when threatened.
“There was a time where Ali and I were receiving gunfire,” Macdonald said. “We were out searching in front of the team and all of a sudden I saw rounds hitting the area around him.”
Macdonald immediately dropped to his knee and tried to call him back to his side but, in response, Ali lay down.
“I remember that moment because he’s lying down, looking back at me and wagging his tail like he’s having a good time,” Macdonald said. “I was like ‘Dog, you are getting shot at, come over here.’ If one of the rounds would have hit him, it would have changed everything.”
Macdonald sprinted to a ditch as he called back to Ali; Ali then darted after him.
“He jumped on my chest and was wagging his tail, having a blast,” Macdonald said. “He was having fun. He thought it was a game but he was really doing his job. Meanwhile, all I hear is rounds zinging by us; rounds all over the place.”
BRINGING A WINGMAN HOME
A few months and many missions later, Macdonald and Ali returned home to Columbus AFB. Shortly after arriving, Macdonald received orders to Little Rock AFB in January 2014. After his permanent change of station, he was notified of Ali’s retirement because of his separation anxiety.
“His anxiety turned into muscle deterioration in his front limbs,” Macdonald said. The veterinarian was monitoring him very closely because of his separation anxiety, it led to him being retired out.”
But Macdonald had other plans for Ali.
“We were like best friends,” Macdonald said. “It was like it was me and him against the world. He watched my back while we were deployed and I felt like it was my turn to watch his.”
In July 2014, he drove from Little Rock AFB back to Columbus AFB to adopt his best friend.
“When I got there, you would have thought he was a puppy all over again,” Macdonald said. “His tail was wagging and he jumped in my arms. It was the whole shebang, he was very excited to see me.”
Since Ali’s adoption, he and Macdonald have been inseparable.
“I brought him home and he will not allow me to leave one room without following me,” Macdonald said. “It’s almost like he has to keep eyes on me at all times.”
Today, Ali continues to live with Macdonald, and his condition has improved.
“Most of the deterioration has gone,” Macdonald said. “He still has separation anxiety but he’s a lot calmer because he’s not being worked the same way. Every morning I put on my uniform, Ali is standing up and he’s ready to go. He’ll even follow me outside while I’m putting stuff in my car for work. He still carries the characteristics of a working dog, that’s all he wants to do.”
Like Ali, Macdonald still desires to come to work every day. He plans on retiring from the Air Force in eight years. While Macdonald won’t wear his uniform forever, he’ll continue to carry himself with the same confidence and pride as his companion, Ali.