Australia’s most decorated dog, Sarbi, who spent more than a year wandering the deserts of Afghanistan, lost her short battle with brain cancer on Friday, after a long career of saving lives with the Australian Special Forces Explosive Detection Dog Team.
The awarded Labrador-Newfoundland hound was lost in the war zone for 14 months during her second tour of duty with the Australian Defence Force in 2008.
Her handler, Warrant Officer Class Two David Simpson, said that Sarbi died peacefully, surrounded by her loved ones.
“Sarbi had a wonderful life serving Australia as an explosive detection dog and as a pet at home for the last five years,” he said.
“Sarbi will live on in everyone’s hearts and minds.”
Sarbi began her career working at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games in 2006, but the most astounding part of her long tale is the time she spent lost in the Afghan desert, after her joint Australian, American and Afghan vehicle convoy was ambushed by insurgents in September 2008.
Nine Australian soldiers, including Sarbi’s handler, were wounded during the bloody foray.
“Early on in the contact, a rocket-propelled grenade exploded within five metres of myself and Sarbi and part of the shrapnel broke the clip that had her lead attached to my body armour,” Warrant Officer Class Two David Simpson said.
“Sarbi was running free while the contact continued and a short while after I was hit by a couple of more RPGs [rocket propelled grenades]and I was wounded.”
Simpson took cover in a hole on the side of the road, and Sarbi came towards him within about five metres, but a .50 calibre machine gun fired over their heads and she ducked away.
“At this time the last coalition Humvee was coming past me so I had to jump onto it and wasn’t able to recover her,” he said.
“Myself and eight others were wounded and had to get to medical treatment. Even though I was concerned for them I was worrying about Sarbi too.”
Sarbi was declared missing in action, and while the Special Operations Task Group made multiple attempts to find her in the desolate south of Afghanistan, she was presumed dead.
“I spent 10 days with US soldiers trying to find her,” Simpson said.
US military intelligence staff made recordings and played them on local radio stations to let people know Sarbi was missing, and how they could help return her.
“We had reports saying she was still in the area and some said she had died.
“It weighed heavily on me that I’d left her there, but I remained hopeful up to the day she was found.”
After more than a year in the wilderness, an American soldier found Sarbi in north-eastern Oruzgan province.
It was immediately clear that Sarbi was no ordinary canine, he said.
“I took the dog and gave it some commands it understood,” the soldier said.
Sarbi was flown to Tarin Kowt to be reunited with Simpson, who recognised her instantly.
“I nudged a tennis ball to her with my foot,” he said at the time “and she took it straight away”.
“It’s a game we used to play over and over during her training.”
Kevin Rudd, the then Prime Minister, also paid homage to Sarbi. He was in Afghanistan at the time, and said Sarbi was “a genuinely nice pooch”.
After six-months of health checks in Dubai, Sarbi finally returned home to Australia and was awarded the War Dog Operational Medal, the Canine Service Medal and the RSPCA Purple Cross Award for her brave efforts.
The Purple Cross Award recognises the deeds of animals who have shown outstanding service to humans involving exceptional courage, and risking their own safety or life to save a person from injury or death.
Sarbi even had a book – Saving Private Sarbi – written about her, and last month, a dog park in south-east Queensland was named in her honour.
SAS Trooper Mark Donaldson, who was awarded his Victorian Cross during the same battle with the Taliban, said Sarbi’s survival in the wilderness had closed a difficult chapter of their shared history.
“She’s the last piece of the puzzle,” Trooper Donaldson said.
“Having Sarbi back gives some closure for the handler and the rest of us that served with her in 2008,” he said.
For Warrant Officer Class Two David Simpson, though, morale must now be low.
“Sarbi will live on in everyone’s hearts and minds and I hope that her story of perseverance and determination will inspire you to do whatever you can to achieve your goals and dreams,” he said.
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