By eleven o'clock, Max and Panzer
suggested it was time to end the workday. The two German
Shepherds had done everything asked of them, but as morning
crept toward noon and the sun rose higher in Vietnam's sky,
priorities changed, and the search for shade to escape the
brutal heat took precedence over the search for the remains of
men still missing from Vietnam's brutal war.
The dogs worked in 15-minute stretches, first one, then the
other, alternating to minimize the drain on their energy. They
kept cool with splashes of water and towels pulled from a
cooler. But the dogs had made a prodigious climatological
leap, going from winter in Rhode Island to the stifling heat
of Southeast Asia. German Shepherds are known for their
versatility and ability to adapt, but Max and Panzer had never
been tested like this.
"They'd never done anything like it,'' their handler, Rhode
Island State Trooper and former Marine Matt Zarrella, said.
Neither had he.
Zarrella and his search dogs, specially trained to locate
cadavers at crime scenes, had been asked by Joint Task
Force-Full Accounting (JTF-FA) in 2002 to come to Vietnam to
aid in the search for remains of Ameican servicemen still
listed as Missing In Action. Working dozens of searches
involved in eight MIA cases, Zarrella said the dogs,
13-year-old Panzer and 1-year-old Maximus, performed
"I thought they did very well for what was asked in such a
short time frame,'' he said.
When Zarrella joined the Rhode Island State Police, there was
no K-9 unit, and no particular organizational interest in
starting one. He had asked about developing a K-9 team while
in the police academy but found no one willing to pursue the
idea. Not long after he graduated from the academy and began
work as a police officer, a triple homicide presented Rhode
Island law enforcement with a problem - no bodies. The problem
became an opportunity for Zarrella.
"We were borrowing search-and-rescue dogs from other states,''
Zarrella said. "They couldn't find anything, either. Then one
day a woman out walking her pet in the same area found the
bodies. Her dog was scratching at something on the ground. She
called the police. They dug. They found the bodies. I was so
upset over that I said, 'Okay, that's it. We're going to have
our own K-9 program if I have to do it myself.' ''
And he did have to do it himself.
He began with his own dog, a 130-pound Swiss Mountain Dog
named Hannibal, Zarrella's family pet. He went to Connecticut,
where retired state police officer Andy Rebmann trained dogs.
Rebmann led the Connecticut State Police K-9 program for 20
years. In Zarrella's estimation, he was the best in the
After examining Hannibal, Rebmann agreed to take them on,
working with Zarrella one on one whenever Zarrella could find
time to drive to Connecticut for training. With the training
complete and Hannibal certified as a search dog, Zarrella went
to his superiors.
"They said, 'Okay, whatever,' '' Zarrella said. "But I wasn't
back a week when a kid went missing in a remote part of the
state. He was missing for two days. They asked if I wanted to
take a shot. Hannibal found the kid in 40 minutes. He was
The story made the front pages of local newspapers. Suddenly,
Zarrella was in the K-9 business. He went back to Rebmann in
Connecticut to train Hannibal to be a cadaver search dog.
"That was the big thing for me,'' Zarrella said. "It meant we
could find buried bodies,
disarticulated remains, dismemberments, blood spatters at
crime scenes, and - though I didn't realize it at the time -
MIAs in Vietnam.''
In the summer of 2002, now working with his veteran dog,
Panzer, a German Shepherd donated to the state police, and his
newest dog, Maximus, a German Shepherd pup six months old when
Zarrella rescued him from the dog pound, the state police
officer picked up a phone message from a military colonel in
"So I call,'' Zarrella said. "He says they're looking for
advice on how to put a dog team together to travel to Vietnam
to look for human remains. We're not talking about a body
that's been in the ground for six months or a year, nice and
neat in its own grave. We're talking about 30-year-old graves,
more than likely disturbed in some way.''
Zarrella advised JTF-FA for three months, providing logistical
and training overviews for an effort never before attempted in
the search for MIA remains in Vietnam. One day in a
conversation with a civilian official from CILHI (Central
Identification Laboratory, Hawaii), as Zarrella laid out the
history of cadaver search dogs, he made an offer.
"I said, 'Look, if you're looking for a dog handler, I'm your
guy,' '' Zarrella said, laughing at the memory of it. "I tried
to be humbly funny about it. I don't like to boast about
anything. But Vietnam? And I'm a former Marine? If they were
going to send anybody, I wanted to be the one to go.''
In October, JTF-FA made the formal request. Zarrella rushed to
finish Max's training and certification. It was imperative
that he take both dogs to insure that even if one were
injured, he would still be able to carry on with the work. In
February, he left for two weeks of training in Hawaii. Then it
was on to Vietnam.
Working out of Saigon, he and the dogs made dozens of searches
involving eight separate cases, one an aircraft crash, the
others reportedly individual burial sites. Each morning he and
the dogs traveled by helicopter to the sites. Working in
environments that went from heavy jungle to open rice paddy,
Zarrella and JTF-FA team members met with Vietnamese
witnesses, mapped out search areas, and began work.
If the dog alerted, Zarrella reported it to the team and
anthropologists dug test pits. Soon he discovered the test
pits needed to be expanded.
"The way they were going about it was wrong,'' he said. "The
dog alerts to the strongest odor. A lot of times the scent
accumulates down-slope from the body or downstream from the
body. The dog doesn't always alert at the grave source. They
dug in the areas where the dogs alerted, but they weren't
finding anything. They finally learned that they had to dig a
larger area. It's possible the bones are gone, but the scent
remained in the soil for years. They decided to leave the
bigger digs for the R&E [Recovery and Excavation] teams. So we
flagged and mapped those areas.''
The first site proved the most promising, though the evidence
they found still must be tested. In 1966, a fighter jet took
ground fire near Hon Dat, a rural area in the southernmost
province, Kien Giang. A witness told local authorities that he
had retrieved and buried body parts.
"We had an alert in the back of his house,'' Zarrella said.
"Within 10 meters of the alert, they dug down 6 inches and
found bone fragments. They said they found life support
equipment that was on the pilot's body, too - a zipper to a
flight suit, that sort of thing. But they still have to run
tests on the bones to see if they're human.''
Zarrella hopes to return to Vietnam for more searches. He is
confident the dogs will perform well and that the second time
will be smoother than the first, since he, the dogs, and the
Vietnamese had come to come to terms with one another. The
Vietnamese were wary of the dogs, Zarrella said; and he was
not too comfortable with the Vietnamese at first.
He had joined the Marine Corps five years after the end of the
Vietnam War. There were many Vietnam veterans in the Corps,
and he said they made it clear to him that the Vietnamese
weren't the best people to be around.
"Then suddenly, I find myself in Vietnam, shaking their hands,
working alongside them, looking for Americans who died
there,'' he said. "It was trying for me at first. I had not
prepared myself for that. I was so busy getting the dogs ready
that I hadn't thought much about how I'd feel. After a couple
of weeks, I started to relax and so did the Vietnamese.''
The diplomats, as it turned out, were Panzer and Max, quietly
"The dogs were the great ice breaker,'' Zarrella said. "The
Vietnamese were nervous around them at first. They didn't know
how to approach them, didn't know how to be around them. But
then they relaxed. They're people, too, and the war's long
over. They were cordial. Some of the senior officials took the
dogs by the leash and went over to their friends.
The dogs didn't care who they were
with. The dogs held no grudges. They didn't care what you
looked like. It only makes sense. We humans are too weak. We
are weak creatures. We hold too many prejudices, even when we
try not to. The dogs don't come with our complications. They
don't ask anything but love in the end, and they work as hard
as they can for you.''