RAYLAND - Not every individual serving in the United States military wears boots and carries a gun, according to Marine Sgt. Shain Nickerson.
Nickerson said that from December 2010 until July 2011, one of the most tenacious members of the 3rd Battalion 5th Marines walked alongside soldiers on four furry paws. Her name is Aja, and she served her country using her nose.
Aja is a German shepherd born in December 2006. For eight months she served alongside Nickerson as a bomb-sniffing dog.
U.S. Marine Sgt. Shain Nickerson and Aja, a German shepherd, worked together for eight months as a bomb-sniffing team in Afghanistan.
"I started working with her in pre-deployment back in April 2010," Nickerson, a 2004 graduate of Buckeye Local High School, said. "We were deployed as a dog team in December 2010. We had a ton of finds."
Nickerson said he and Aja discovered explosives 18 times during their eight-month term of service.
"We found a bunch of homemade explosive caches and (improvised explosive devices)," he said. "We sustained a handful of IED blasts together. Somehow we came out with no injuries, thank God."
One of the closest calls Nickerson could remember was an IED explosion in which he and Aja were less than 5 meters away from the blast. He said he and most of the men with him were knocked off their feet by the explosion, and Aja felt it, too.
"It threw her down into a poppy field," Nickerson said. "I have no idea how, but she just jumped right up and shook it off. It was incredible. I don't know how she wasn't killed."
While the partnership between Nickerson and Aja ended in 2011, Nickerson said he continued to serve in the military until October 2012.
Since then Nickerson, who lived in Rayland prior to his military stint, has started working in kennels training with police dogs in El Paso, Texas.
More recently, Nickerson said he was offered a chance to return to the military to help train new bomb-sniffing dogs, and he accepted it gladly.
Aja and Nickerson were reunited on May 2, when he was able to adopt her. Now their duties mostly include guarding the couch and watching over his family, he said, but she still quietly shows the "spunk" and alertness that saved the lives of American servicemen many times in Afghanistan.
"We're both combat veterans," Nickerson said. "She's a retired military dog. I was really blessed to have such a solid dog over there."
Over their eight months in service together, Nickerson said he and Aja earned the respect of their comrades.
"Over there, nobody really believed in dogs," Nickerson said. "By the time we were finished, we made believers out of a lot of them. Military dogs, they're America's unseen and unsung heroes."
Nickerson is the son of Ed and Jamie Nickerson of Rayland.