Flight Sergeant Will Barrow was crouched low, his heart pounding, in the belly
of a Viking armoured vehicle under intense Taliban gunfire, when a clear and
sudden understanding of his own mortality came to him.
But he had one immediate comfort: “I knew that if I died tonight, I would not
be alone, because my best pal would be watching over me.”
It was at moments like this, as the bullets flew, that Sgt Barrow realised the
true value of Buster, the trusty springer spaniel whose job was to protect
the troops fighting the bloody war in Afghanistan.
Buster is no ordinary animal but a highly trained arms and explosives
detection dog with five military campaign medals to his name, who has saved
a thousand lives in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
And to Sgt Barrow, his handler, he was also a best friend during times of
RAF Police Sergeant Barrow, a career security forces man, is no softie. Almost
6ft tall, with rugged features and the steely core of a military
professional, he has also served in Bosnia, Iraq, the Falkland Islands and
But as Buster saved him and his colleagues time and again from deadly
explosives, an enduring bond developed between the pair.
Their friendship dates back to their Afghanistan tour. It was 2007 and Buster
had been deployed with Sgt Barrow to serve in the desert and poppy fields of
Helmand and the slums of Lashkar Gah.
It was a treacherous point in the war, when roadside bombs – improvised
explosive devices, or IEDS – and suicide missions were commonplace and the
body count of British soldiers was rapidly climbing.
Conditions in the troops’ desert camp were basic: food consisted of
boil-in-the-bag ration packs, the “mozzipods” they slept in were cramped,
and sand permeated everything.
But for Sgt Barrow, 48, at least there was Buster.
In the book he has written as a tribute to their partnership, he recalls the
dog’s greatest triumph: a house raid in which he tracked down suicide vests
primed for detonation. Two bomb-makers and two teenage would-be bombers were
arrested as a result.
But Buster’s ability to track Taliban insurgents and sniff out bombs were just
one aspect of his armoury.
Sgt Barrow recounts how Buster became a diplomatic tool, too: “As we searched
and chatted to the locals, we soon had a long train of children in tow –
like a canine Pied Piper, Buster drew in his crowd and entertained them,” he
writes. “Anyone looking on would have wondered how on earth a spaniel from
the UK could do so much for the ‘hearts and minds’ operation.”
He was, moreover, a model of calmness in terrifying situations, taking his
handler’s mind off the immediate risks to himself.
“My main concern was always the little fella, because if he had been injured,
my role was non-existent,” he says. “As much as I relied on him not to walk
us into IEDs, he needed me to feed and water him.”
He was also an invaluable comfort, emotionally, to both his handler and his
Sgt Barrow writes of one evening after coming under insurgent fire: “I was
missing home and [my wife] Tracy but when he settled on my chest, I curled
my arms around him. I needed to talk about the bad day at work, and this
time Buster was the one listening.”
At times, Sgt Barrow’s tale reads almost like a love story: the separations –
when the serviceman flies home on leave and the springer spaniel is
quarantined – are poignant, with the spaniel gazing forlornly after his
handler as the latter walks away.
Their joint tour of duty in Afghanistan over in 2008, Buster went on to do
four more months in Iraq in 2009. Then Buster found a home with Sgt Barrow
He retired in 2011, aged seven, and a stream of honours followed. He was made
the RAF Police’s lifetime mascot – unprecedented for any dog – and he has
received more requests for television appearances than many human war
Sgt Barrow, meanwhile, went on to become head of police at RAF Henlow. Looking
back at his tours with Buster, he is phlegmatic about the life-or-death
situations he faced.
“I don’t think we see it the same way as civilians do,” he says. “We deal with
it, and just get on with things.”
Nor does he talk much about the horrors of war. “You don’t want to dwell on
those sorts of things. It could tip you over the edge a bit.”
But whatever hardships life throws at him, Buster remains by his side.
“We made a pact from the start to look after each other, and Buster has stayed
true to our bargain,” he writes. “He saved my life every day we were
together. I owe him so much that I can never repay the debt, even if we
lived for ever.”
‘Buster: The Dog Who Saved a Thousand Lives’ by RAF Police Sergeant Will
Barrow and Isabel George, is published by Virgin Books at £9.99. To order a
copy, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk
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