This coming Saturday, March 13, will mark the 68th birthday of the United States K9 Corps; it was one man's dying wish to see that date marked officially on the national calendar as K9 Veterans Day. As civic proclamations spread (including one from Florida Governor Charlie Crist), that dog tag dream may come true.
Image Credits: Top - Australian Army Trackers and War Dogs Association
Joseph J. White was a young rebel when drafted into the Vietnam war. Initially installed as a Point Guard, he found inspiration when he witnessed a U.S. military dog being airlifted down from a helicopter. White approached his commanders about working with the dogs but they refused his request. Only after seeking written approval from his congressman did White finally obtain appointment to the Scout Dog Platoon. He was partnered with Ebony, a pure black German Shepherd, in what proved to be one of the more pivotal relationships of his life.
In his biographical book, "Ebony & White", White relates how the partnership evolved and the depth of the dog's loyalty in war time. One incident describes how Ebony guided White and platoons of men safely through the jungle. At yet, at war's end, the dogs were considered 'expendable surplus' not allowed on U.S soil.
When speaking by phone to White's dedicated widow, Sally, she described his despair and how it inspired a movement. "He fought to get Ebony on a state-side police force but that didn't work out," she said. "His last memory of the war was seeing Ebony chained up to kennel by the Vietnamese, who generally left the dogs like that to die. He never forgot it."
Soldier dogs have come a long way since Vietnam. The animals are no longer regarded as mere equipment and the military readily acknowledges the bond between man and beast. As a result, the dogs generally come home to civilian life along with their handlers. Also, in the Marines, dogs are bestowed an actual military rank, one notch above the handler's, to reinforce respect.
Many others have felt compelled to honor these canine heroes (including a War Dog Stamp petition) and two war dog memorials were unveiled just a decade ago. The first on President's Day 2000 at March Field Air Museum - March Air Force Base in Riverside, California. The second at Sacrifice Field in front of the National Infantry Museum, Fort Benning, Georgia on October 8th, 2000.
"America's war dogs were trained to recognize booby traps, mines tunnels and weapons caches. They warned troops about ambushes. They saved lives by dragging wounded soldier to safety. America's war dogs prevented over 10,000 casualties in Vietnam alone and bravely served our country in Operation Desert Storm as well as WWII. Yet many of these canine heroes were declared 'surplus armaments' either euthanized or left to unknown fates…"
--Jeffrey P. Bennett, President, War Dog Memorial, on the unveiling of the sculpture honoring war dogs by A. Thomas Schomberg at Fort Benning, GA
In fact, in a quick search for 'war dog memorial', I found several honoring military dogs and canines who work with police and law enforcement here in the U.S. One granite inscription in particular - from the Miami Police K9 Memorial - got me all choked up:
"BORN TO LOVE. TRAINED TO SERVE. LOYAL TO THE END. BEST FRIEND TO OUR NATION'S FINEST… AN OFFICER'S EXTRA SENSE TO GUIDE AND PROTECT YOUR EYES IN THE DARK. A NOSE FOR DANGER. A PARTNER FAITHFUL BEYOND WORDS."
A recent Wall Street Journal article ("Eve His Red Squeak Toy Can't Get First Sgt. Gunner, USMC, To Fight") highlighted the stress and strains of our overseas war dogs. The article touched on the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms often associated with psychologically damaged soldiers returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Like their human comrades, some war dogs can handle combat, and some can't. One Marine Corps explosives dog, a black Lab named Daisy, has found 13 hidden bombs since arriving in Afghanistan in October. Zoom, another Lab, refused to associate with the Marines after seeing one serviceman shoot a feral Afghan dog. Only after weeks of retraining, hours of playing with a reindeer squeaky toy and a gusher of good-boy praise was Zoom willing to go back to work."
--Michael M. Phillips, Wall Street Journal, 3/4/10
All this brave pooch pondering led me to a childhood friend, William Jones, who now works with the Street Gang Unite (SGU) unit of the Modesto (California) Police Department which utilizes canines, mainly for search. (He even let me call him 'Willie' like in 7th grade!) Modesto boasts one of the largest canine units in the country per-officer - 250 officers, including 14 dogs/handlers.
Over a 10-year span working with dogs in law enforcement, Willie's canine partners - Viktor and Caine - have located and/or apprehended 100+ suspects. Unlike military dogs that usually live in kennels, Willie's dogs live in his house and are incorporated into his family. As we spoke on the phone, Willie observed that Caine, a Belgian Malinois, was, in fact, laying on the couch - against Mrs. Willie's orders.
Nevertheless, he insisted these dogs know the difference between home-life and law enforcement. "I’m with my dog 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I see my dog more than I see my family," he said. "He’s not a fire-breathing mean dog that you see on the news. But when we go to work, he knows it’s time to go to work."
Willie's two kids (boy, 14; girl, 18) grew up thinking of Willie and the dogs as working partners. "They know some of the commands. Nothing dangerous but they understand that he’s a working dog. You treat them differently as you would a regular pet."
Willie informed me that most police dogs come from Europe along with a list of dog-specific commands in Danish, German or Czech. It ends up being a safety element as the general public of Modesto would likely not know these words. "I don't even know what the words mean except in relation to the dogs," said Willie. "But we do make sure they know the word, 'No!'"
I asked Willie if he thought these dogs experienced high emotions. "Absolutely. If you have a dog that has confidence issues or is stressed out while he’s on the bite, he’ll howl. You can hear it in ‘em. Their vocalizing it and they are still doing what they are supposed to do, but they're stressed."
Causes? "Could be a confidence issue or maybe an overbearing handler," he said. "In that situation, the dog's afraid he’s going to ‘get corrected.’ Or maybe the dog's just uncomfortable with the situation. We have a learning curve for a dog. When he peaks and starts to come back down, he basically short-circuited - he's not going to retain anything new."
>Although some police departments and law enforcement agencies recognize their K9 counterparts as officers, Modesto regards them as 'equipment' on paper. When the dogs retire - usually around age 10 - the handlers buy them back from the city for $1.
Working with the dogs as professionals means you've got to keep your emotions in check, even in a high-stress situation. "If I were to send my dog out and someone kills him, I can not kill that person because he killed my dog," said Willie. "We have ultimate control of our dogs. It’s written into our general orders. Even if the Chief of Police tells me to send my dog into a dangerous situation, I can refuse. Having said that, I would sacrifice my dog for the life of an officer. But I’m not going to send my dog into a gunfight. What’s that going to prove?"
Every person I spoke to and everything I read on this 'dogs of honor' issue made a point of including canines beyond military and law enforcement. Dogs used in search-and-rescue, cadaver dogs, narcotic locators and especially comfort/therapy dogs (ironically, used more and more in treating soldiers with PTSD) are regarded as heroes.
Of course, Americans did not create the concept of using dogs in law enforcement and warfare (the practice dates back to 628 BC) but this Saturday, many are asking that we salute those brave American canines who give everything and ask for nothing, except love.
And hey, even if you're dog's a civilian, go ahead and toss 'em a bone - chances are, he's an untapped hero.
BlogHer Contributing Editor, Animal & Wildlife Concerns, Proprietor, ClizBiz
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