MARINE CORPS LOGISTICS BASE ALBANY, Ga. -- Being in the military and a part of "America's 911 force" means Marines need to be ready to go any where on a moments notice to perform the required duties. Recently one military working dog team from MCLB Albany left the comforts of the small rural base to fight the war on drugs in the heat of the Texas sun.
Lance Cpl. Mario Relta, military working dog handler here, and Max, his military working dog partner, were temporarily assigned to assist the U.S. Customs Service from March 18 to May 31. The Orlando, Fla., native and Max, a Belgium Malinios, helped customs stop the transportation of illegal drugs from Mexico entering the United States.
Max, has been trained specifically to sniff-out and detect narcotics. Relta was excited when he first found out they were selected for the special assignment, but admits he was also a little nervous since he was not allowed to carry a weapon. He was not allowed to bare arms due to the Posse Comitatus Act which Congress established to ensure active duty military personnel are not used to enforce civil law.
"It's pretty scary," said Relta. "You have guys coming over the border with millions of dollars worth of drugs, and most of them are armed. If you find their stash, they are not going to be happy."
The U.S. Customs Service has a big job of patrolling the U.S. borders and checking vehicles entering the United States for illegal narcotics. They sometimes find themselves undermanned and have to request the assistance of military working dogs and their handlers. The Provost Marshal's Office K-9 unit here received the request for a dog team and was left with the decision of deciding who would be sent to El Paso, Texas.
"We made sure he was ready for this task and he has proved that to us," said Cpl. Nester Antoine, military working dog handler. "Being in K-9 is a big responsibility and if we didn't feel he wasn't ready, then we would've have sent him."
Before Relta and Max left for El Paso, Antoine and other K-9 noncommissioned officers here gave them extra training in searching vehicles. They tried to simulate different scenarios the team would encounter during operations.
Working with Customs was a good change of pace for Relta, even though it took some time to acclimatize to the desert heat, he said. During his daily operations he was assigned a certain vehicle lane and it was up to him to conduct vehicle searches with Max.
"I felt like I was really making a difference," said Relta. "I've been waiting to do something like this ever since I joined [the Marine Corps]. This is basically what we train for every day."
During the 2½ months he and Max spent searching vehicles they proved themselves worthy, said Relta. More than two months and three substantial drug busts later, they found a total of 278 pounds of marijuana and apprehended 36 pounds of cocaine, which was the biggest cocaine seizure out of all the K-9 units that were present.
Becoming proficient in searching vehicles for narcotics and learning extra responsibilities was not the only thing Relta gained from the experience. Relta also created a stronger bond and relationship with his friend and partner, Max. While working in El Paso, Max did not stay in a kennel like usual, but instead in Relta's room. Even though the partners have been together for more than a year, they still learned how each other reacts in certain situations.
"That's why they call us a dog team," said Relta. "I need to know his change in behavior when we are searching for drugs. We need to be able to trust each other. He needs to be able to work for me and want to work for me. If not, then you don't have a team at all."
Since Relta has been back at MCLB Albany, he said he takes his job more seriously than he used to. After finding narcotics in various vehicles and seeing the direct results of him and Max's hard work payoff, he now realizes the importance of their jobs.
"For my sergeant and the command to send me on a mission like that really means a lot to me," said Relta. "It shows me they trust me and they think I'm responsible enough to complete such a task."
Relta and Max accepted the duties for searching vehicles with open arms and paws, he said. He is looking forward to the next opportunity he and his partner get to bring drug-trafficking criminals to justice.