“Buster: The Military Dog Who Saved a Thousand Lives”

“Buster: The Military Dog Who Saved a Thousand Lives,” by Will Barrow as told to Isabel George. Thomas Dunne Books, $24.99.

Buster, an English springer spaniel, is a decorated military veteran with five tours of duty, a celebrity at home in England and a soldier’s best friend.

This gripping narrative takes the reader on two assignments in Afghanistan and one in Iraq with Buster, an arms and explosives search partner and best friend of Barrow, a Royal Air Force senior NCO in charge of the Dog Section and a Squadron Dog Inspector.

Through his career Barrow has handled numerous German shepherd patrol dogs, he characterizes as “flesh seeking missiles” and “furry crocodiles,” but he says, “It’s the dogs with personality—the ones who are almost human and challenge you as you journey together—that really carve an imprint on your soul. They are the ones you grow and learn with, and the ones who get to know you more than you know yourself. They are the ones you trust with your life, where mortality stares you in the face.”

And that’s Buster!

Each tantalizing chapter is a cliffhanger, leaving you hopeful the pair will come out alive, whether they are dealing with a vehicle checkpoint search, a probing look for IEDs (improvised explosive devices) on a remote dirt road or checking out an Afghan village or town, where the unit is uncertain if it is dealing with friendlies or foes.

Virtually everywhere Buster travels he’s a big hit, particularly amongst the unit with which he is serving on the point. The Afghan people do not regard dogs as companion animals as we do. Conversely, he is a military working dog with a job to do, but a companion, “a soldier even, so entitled to share our space,” write Barrow and George.

Front and center on Buster’s job description is detect explosives and save human lives. The authors capture that passionately and powerfully here:

“Buster padded the ground, looked at me, tongue lolling out of his mouth, his eyes urging me to give him the go-ahead. Half a second later he was steadily sweeping the earth. His nose working overtime, his body moves all deliberate, precise and measured, like a fully wound clockwork toy. . . . It’s kind of madness to assure that there are hidden dangers everywhere, but in a place where there are no rules, it’s the kind of madness that can save your life.”

Buster’s worth can’t be measured strictly with his sense of smell. He is a hands-on therapist and morale booster for all around him, including RAF and American troops. Everywhere he goes, he’s a photo-op waiting to happen.

For Barrow, some of the most angst is prompted by separation from Buster following tours of duty, quarantines on Cypress and a return home to England, where he is missing the dog’s “calming influence,” leaving him feeling “lost,” sometimes for months.

“Buster” is an emotionally powerful read that resonates from a combustible feel one minute to a celebratory spirit the next.