The battle for military dogs

Military dogs serve with everything they’ve got, every minute they are on duty. They are very, very good dogs. 

The history of dogs offering help and comfort to American soldiers goes back to at least the Civil War. Once the U.S. began organizing K-9 corps in World War II, military dogs became indispensable to our defense. Today the U.S. is the leader in training military dogs to sniff out explosive devices and narcotics while keeping their two-legged companions safe across the globe.

You would think that these canine warriors would command nothing but respect, hugs, and lots of delicious treats, wouldn’t you?

But here’s the ugly truth:

Military dogs have a tragic history with the U.S. armed forces.

The soldiers who served as their handlers loved them like brothers. For decades, however, official policy treated military dogs as nothing more than equipment.

Thousands of them were abandoned, neglected, or left to die alone in military camps. Often their human companions wanted so badly to bring them home — but were denied the chance. The loss of their faithful friends haunted them for years.

And it might still be happening today, but for the efforts of a few dedicated soldiers.

Talented mascots (1865-1919)

In the Civil War and World War I, dogs went to war mostly as mascots, providing companionship and a loving reminder of pets the boys had back home.

A bull terrier named Stubby in World War I, “Sergeant Stubby” proved to be much more than a mascot. Soldiers began to notice that their mascot would run for cover before any of them caught wind of poisonous mustard gas coming their way. Stubby also could detect nearby enemy movements that human ears couldn’t, and once saved his company from ambush. 

These exploits earned him medals, a parade in his honor, and meetings with three U.S. presidents.

The birth of the K-9 corps (1941-1945)

From World War II to the present day, military dogs have been an official part of our armed forces.

At first, the U.S. relied on civilians to donate their household pets to the cause. The World War II “Dogs for Defense” program drew thousands of volunteers, but certain breeds emerged as better suited to combat.

On Guam in 1944, so many Doberman pinschers paid the ultimate price that grateful soldiers built a beautiful monument to their service.

Discarded like old equipment (1964-1975)

After the Vietnam War, the Pentagon decided that all the military dogs serving in Southeast Asia would be left behind — left to fates that we can only grimly imagine.

What must it have been like for those canine warriors to wait faithfully for months for their soldiers to return? Soldiers like John Burnam, who served with a dog named Clipper, were scarred for life by the trauma of this forced separation. He recalled:

“I wanted Clipper to be treated with the same dignity and respect I expected for myself. He had earned it. I knew as I sat under that tree with him leaning against my leg that I’d never see him again in this life. The tragedy of it all haunted me like a nightmare.”John Burnam

Military dogs were classified as equipment, rather than the living, breathing, emotional beings they are. To this day, that’s still how they’re classified.

Respect and honor (2000-present)

But soldiers knew better. Beginning in the late 1990s they began fighting against the old policies that treated military dogs as equipment.

John Burnam was among several Vietnam vets who led the efforts to build a memorial to military dogs in 2013. It proudly stands at the Lackland base in San Antonio, Texas, where thousands of canine soldiers have been trained for service around the world. 

This summer Nancy Pimm attended the unveiling of a Vietnam wall for its canine corps, including the names and serial numbers of the more than 4,000 soldier dogs left behind. 

On the legislative front, Congress has passed several bills, including the landmark “Robby’s Law,” granting four-footed vets the right to be repatriated and placed with a loving adoptive family after its duty is done. 

There’s still work to be done, but a small and dedicated cadre of veterans have seen to it that the memory of our canine corps is honored and that their successors have a humane life after they have served their country. 

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