Behind 20th SFS berets: partnerships

Kato, 20th Security Forces Squadron military working dog (MWD), runs toward a simulated suspect at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., Feb. 27, 2018.

Kato, 20th Security Forces Squadron military working dog (MWD), runs toward a simulated suspect at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., Feb. 27, 2018. MWDs are capable of a variety of tasks, such as helping defenders hold and escort suspects, and searching vehicles while deployed. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Kathryn R.C. Reaves)

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Juan Gamboa, 20th Security Forces Squadron (SFS) military working dog (MWD) handler, stands in a bite suit while MWD Kato bites his arm and Staff Sgt. Eric Sweat, 20th SFS MWD handler, holds his other arm at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., Feb. 27, 2018.

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Juan Gamboa, 20th Security Forces Squadron (SFS) military working dog (MWD) handler, stands in a bite suit while MWD Kato bites his arm and Staff Sgt. Eric Sweat, 20th SFS MWD handler, holds his other arm at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., Feb. 27, 2018. Handlers and their MWDs train often to hone their skills in a variety of tasks, such as bite work and foreign substance detection. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Kathryn R.C. Reaves)

U.S. Air Force Airmen assigned to the 20th Security Forces Squadron prepare equipment before an active shooter exercise at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., Feb. 28, 2018.

U.S. Air Force Airmen assigned to the 20th Security Forces Squadron prepare equipment before an active shooter exercise at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., Feb. 28, 2018. The Airmen practiced scenarios under the guidance of trainers to prepare for real-world threats and improve team efficiency. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Kathryn R.C. Reaves)

U.S. Airmen assigned to the 20th Security Forces Squadron begin their shift at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., Feb. 26, 2018.

U.S. Airmen assigned to the 20th Security Forces Squadron begin their shift at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., Feb. 26, 2018. The squadron’s defenders maintain security and safety operations 24/7 to protect Team Shaw members and base assets. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Kathryn R.C. Reaves)

SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. -- On training grounds and behind closed doors, 20th Security Forces Squadron Airmen sharpen their skills mostly out of public view.

Training takes place all across the squadron with a variety of goals. I was invited to go behind the scenes for an inside look at the various trainings.

As the military working dog ripped across the 20th SFS MWD training ground with his teeth bared, my earlier opinion of him changed instantly.

Upon first meeting him, I thought Kato looked like any other typical pet as he followed his handler around the grounds while wagging his tail.

The thud of Kato’s body slamming into the 20th SFS defender’s bite suit made my stomach drop. The simulated suspect’s struggles did nothing as the canine sunk his teeth deeper, waiting on a command from his handler.

Military working dogs are capable of a variety of tasks, such as helping defenders hold and escort suspects, and searching vehicles while deployed.

Staff Sgt. Jason McCarthy, 20th SFS MWD handler, said handlers and their MWDs never stop training. By putting in countless hours of training, they enhance their skills and solidify their understanding of each other to excel as a team.

Even with continuous improvement throughout the canine’s career, McCarthy said handlers only scratch the surface of what the MWDs can do.

The handler and canine teams build bonds throughout their trainings and deployments, but the connection ran deeper than I had expected.

McCarthy explained that handlers must understand more than just the body language of their partners. They also have to get into the dog’s head and know how they think.

In this way, the duos work much like any other set of law enforcement partners.

Later, while watching groups of 20th SFS Airmen participate in an active shooter exercise, I witnessed the same transition as I had when Kato demonstrated his skills at the training ground.

The defenders stood with team members and joked casually prior to the exercise, yet their controlled movements through the building carried with it the impression of deadly force with which they could execute a real-world mission.

Each practice of the scenario and every piece of guidance trainers gave improved the team’s efficiency and prepared them to face what could one day be a real threat.

Just as the handler and MWD teams worked to hone their skills, other 20th SFS Airmen dedicated hours to refine their knowledge with direction from seasoned law enforcement professionals.

Building these skills applies not only to studying physical procedures such as clearing rooms, but also to mental rehearsal in anticipation of stress.

Security forces must prepare themselves to face anything from monitoring base security via cameras and detection systems to answering emergency calls.

The defenders receive a variety of calls including complaints about loud neighbors and requests for immediate medical assistance due to injury or fire.

Surrounded by data monitors and video feeds, I found it hard to focus on the Airman who was describing the equipment and was impressed by the defenders’ ability to concentrate on the calls they received.

Regardless of the type of call they receive, they must maintain their bearing to focus, gather information and dispatch aid quickly.

With every division security forces members support, their ability to get the job done to protect Shaw’s mission, Airmen and families continues to impress me.

The South Carolina air was thick with humidity as a silence enveloped the darkened base. Hours before others would roll from their beds, 20th SFS defenders began to don their heavy vests and secure their weapons in preparation for their long shifts of protecting Team Shaw members and assets.

Minutes later, bags of gear slung across their arms, the men and women walked to their patrol cars and pierced the subtly colored sky with brightly flashing blues and reds before departing to their sectors, ready to defend Team Shaw.