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Expert on land mine disposal visits Greenwich

April 5, 2017

GREENWICH — Imagine a place where every step could end a life because of land mines buried beneath the ground’s surface.

Perry Baltimore III, a retired colonel in the United States Army with 27 years of experience in Afghanistan, Vietnam, Iraq, Rwanda and Somalia, tried to create that sense of place for members of the Retired Men’s Association of Greenwich at its Wednesday gathering.

“Just during the 45 minutes we’re having this conversation, there are two, maybe three, people who are happy, helping, hopeful and healthy who will lose their life or lose a limb because of these hidden killers called landmines,” Baltimore told the Greenwich RMA’s crowd of close to 175.

Baltimore is president and executive director of the Marshall Legacy Institute. The institute, which was formed in 1997, is dedicated to eradicating landmines from once and current war-torn countries.

From Afghanistan and Angola to Bosnia and Cambodia to Zambia and Zimbabwe, Baltimore listed an alphabet’s worth of conflict. Out of the 193 countries in the United Nations’ Security Council, close to one third of them have landmines in the ground, he said.

One of the institute’s biggest initiatives is the Children Against Mines Program, more commonly known as CHAMPS, launched in 2005. It provides year-round programs to students across the country, giving them a chance to get involved with the foundation through its K9 Demining Corps Campaign that trains dogs to detect hidden mines.

The initiative is alive and well in Greenwich, led by town residents Geoff and Betsy Parkinson.

The Parkinsons have been working with students at the town’s private and public schools to help raise money for dog training and deployment.

Betsy Parkinson, who attended Wednesday’s discussion, said afterward that New Lebanon, Parkway Greenwich Country Day, Brunswick, Convent of the Sacred Heart and Stanwich schools were among those participating in CHAMPS.

“The kids really understand they can make a difference and they love the connection with the dog,” Parkinson said. “The dog is the hero and the dog sells the program. The kids are idealistic and want to help. They’ve done amazing things.”

Baltimore credited the Parkinsons with helping raise money to pay for 11 of the 222 dogs now trained and deployed to affected countries. In all, American school children have paid for 37 dogs for the organization.

“Those dogs have been gifts of the American people,” Baltimore said. “We don’t know how many lives any one of these dogs save, but we know tens of thousands of livelihoods are improved because of the work of these life-saving animals.”

Wednesday’s talk at the RMA was Baltimore’s 12th trip in the past 20 years to Greenwich to advocate for the program.

“There is no community in the United States that has done more to serve people around the world whose lands are inundated and infested with the horrific scourge of landmines and other insidious, devastating explosives than Greenwich,” Baltimore said.

The dogs are usually born and bred in Europe before being brought to Texas between 14 and 16 months old to begin four to five months of extensive training in how to safely detect explosives. That is followed by six more months of training in a mine-affected country.

Typically, a dog works six to eight years sniffing out mines before retirement. While it would seem enormously risky to put an animal into a minefield, Baltimore said, there has never been an incident where a dog has been killed during an operation over the past two decades.

According to the Marshall Institute, landmines maim or kill more than 12,000 people and hundreds of thousands of animals each year.

More than 50 million landmines are estimated to be underground in close to 72 countries. Their damage is not limited to injuries to people or animals. Mine-saturated grounds cannot be farmed, which restricts food supply and affects local economies, Baltimore said.

He also introduced Nutmeg, a purebred German Shepard who was sponsored by local school children and served in Lebanon with 32 other dogs for seven years, clearing minefields and checking surrounding areas. With him was his handler, Kimberly McCasland.

“Nutmeg saved lives and directly impacted the lives of no less than 10,000 people,” McCasland said. “That’s just one dog, and when you consider American school kids have sponsored 37 of these hero dogs and you multiply those 10,000 lives, that’s an incredible gift by children.”

More information about the program and how to get involved is online at www.masrshall-legacy.org .

kborsuk@greenwichtime.com