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K-9 Heroes: Dogs Fetch Hearts, Honors, Respect

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Dogs, used in war since ancient times, have never been more indispensable than they are in the counterinsurgencies of today. Their keen vision and hearing, along with their highly developed sense of smell, have enabled them to root out roadside bombs, warn of enemy ambushes and save countless lives.

Among those dogs whose talent, intelligence, commitment and loyalty have been outstanding is a Belgian Malinois named Layka. On a May night in Afghanistan in 2012, she led her handler, Staff Sgt. Julian McDonald, and the rest of a 75th Ranger Regiment Special Forces squad through a building in pursuit of an insurgent they had been hunting. Wearing night-vision equipment, McDonald followed Layka into a room and saw her barking at something in a corner. It turned out to be an insurgent. Just as Layka charged him, the insurgent fired his AK-47. He got in four shots at the dog at point blank range before she managed to subdue him. McDonald grabbed Layka and rushed outside to a physician’s assistant, who stabilized her.

A helicopter dropped the two off at a military hospital camp. The shooter had destroyed the ball and socket of Layka’s right leg, and after seven hours of surgery, doctors had to amputate it. McDonald wanted to adopt the dog. The Army resisted because the Malinois was deemed too aggressive, but McDonald persisted and took custody of Layka in August 2012. The dog now lives with him and his family in Georgia, where she helps train future military working dogs and handlers. She gets around just fine on three legs and enjoys playing with McDonald’s children. This past summer, McDonald and Layka skydived from 13,500 feet to test a new parachute harness for military dogs. In June 2014, she appeared on the cover of National Geographic magazine.

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A 1st Cavalry Division handler and his dog clear a building in Iraq. (Credit: DoD/Petty Officer 1st Class Sean Mulligan)

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Gabe, retired after serving 200 combat missions, was named Hero Dog of the Year in 2012. (Credit: Courtesy Sgt. 1st Class Charles Shuck)

 

Until the 2000 passage of legislation that allowed military dogs to be adopted—“Robby’s Law”—all had been euthanized when they could no longer work because of age or injury. Now, if a dog can still serve after it is retired, civilian law enforcement has the first chance to adopt it. For dogs who can’t serve any longer, like Layka, handlers get priority. All dogs must be adopted through the Military Working Dog School at Lackland Air Force Base at Joint Base San Antonio. More than 90 percent of retired combat canines are adopted by their handlers, showing just how strong the bond between them is.

A yellow Labrador named Gabe, originally from an animal shelter, almost washed out of training in San Antonio but formed a bond with Sgt. 1st Class Charles Shuck of the 178th Military Police Detachment. In August 2006, the two deployed to Iraq, where they spent 13 months searching for weapons and explosives on patrols, night raids and other searches. That year, Gabe made 26 finds—more than any other detection dog.

The two returned to Fort Hood, Texas, for a year; then drill instructor orders came for Shuck, and he had to give Gabe up and move on to Fort Jackson, S.C. Man and canine were both devastated. Gabe returned to training in San Antonio but apparently went on strike, refusing to work with his new handler. The school called Shuck and offered him the dog, which he accepted with alacrity. By then, Gabe had been nominated for the American Humane Association’s annual Hero Dog of the Year Awards. In 2012, he not only won Military Hero Dog of the Year but also beat out the winners in seven other categories to win the grand title. His $15,000 winnings benefited the U.S. War Dogs Association.

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Mimsy holds focus during a training session with her handler, Spc. Matt Kreutzer, 101st Airborne Division, in Afghanistan. (Credit: U.S. Army/Sgt. Shawn Vradenburg)

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The Military Working Dog Teams National Monument was dedicated in October 2013 at Joint Base San Antonio. (Credit: U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Krystal M. Jeffers)

Mimsy and Spc. Matt Kreutzer were stationed with 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, in 2013. They were on a routine foot patrol searching for improvised explosive devices along a wall, and Kreutzer had called Mimsy back so he could check around a corner. As he did so, a feral dog—some there are rabid—went for him. Mimsy lunged, grabbed the dog by the neck and dragged it away. She and her handler were quarantined and checked for rabies because Mimsy had come in contact with the other dog’s blood, but both soon returned to patrol. “She really is a one-of-a-kind dog,” Kreutzer said.

Many retired war dogs continue to serve after retirement and have proven invaluable as therapy dogs. Veterans with stress disorders who were incapable of leaving home venture into crowds when accompanied by their dogs. Appreciation for the animals and what they do continues to grow. October 2014 saw the first Dogs of War 2K-9 race, held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. A television program about war dogs debuted in November.

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Heroes Throughout History

Combat canines have served soldiers informally, usually as messengers, mascots or companions, for thousands of years. During World War I, they were sentries, carried messages and helped the Red Cross locate casualties.

Some, like bull terrier mix Sgt. Stubby, who received a medal from Gen. John J. Pershing, became celebrities. One canine companion became a Hollywood legend. In 1918, Cpl. Lee Duncan was sent to scout an appropriate landing site before the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, France. He found a bombed-out German war dog kennel occupied by a starving mother and five puppies. One of the two German shepherd pups he adopted, Rin Tin Tin, starred in 26 movies, inspired a television show and became a worldwide star.

The U.S. began training and using dogs with the establishment of the K-9 Corps in 1942 and sentry dogs from supply depots. Soldiers standing watch were vulnerable in the dark, and the dogs alerted them to threats. By July 1943, some 11,000 dogs and their handlers were training in the War Dog Program center in Front Royal, Va. One of those first military war dogs was a German shepherd-collie-Siberian husky mix named Chips. He deployed with his handler, Pvt. John P. Rowell of the Third Infantry Division, to Morocco and then found fame in Sicily where he attacked an enemy machine-gun nest and forced its five occupants to surrender.

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Sgt. Stubby shares a float with the daughter of a general staff colonel during a 1921 parade in Washington, D.C. (Credit: Library of Congress)

After World War II, the Military Police Corps took over the training of military working dogs from the Quartermaster Corps. An estimated 1,500 dogs served in the Korean War; some 4,000 served as scouts and sentries, located tunnels, led soldiers through the jungle, and patrolled for bombs in Vietnam. Almost 300 dogs died in action there; the military, which classifies the animals as “equipment,” left most of the rest.

Since 1967, training has centered at the DoD Military Working Dog School at Lackland Air Force Base at Joint Base San Antonio. The dogs are taught using positive verbal rewards and learn basic obedience as well as how to find bombs, ammunition or drugs. To certify as a military working dog, each animal must attain a 95 percent accuracy rate in searches. About half of them make the cut and are matched with a handler whose first task is to build a bond between the two. About 900 dogs are in training at any given time, and some 270 are certified each year.

Previously, dogs that were injured or retired were euthanized. Now, they are put up for adoption through a program at the Texas training center. The wait is about two years, and several hundred dogs are adopted annually.

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Also last fall, the first national monument dedicated to military working dogs and their handlers was dedicated at Lackland. It is largely due to the efforts of Master Sgt. John C. Burnam, U.S. Army retired, who was a dog handler with the 25th Infantry Division during his second tour in Vietnam. He learned to appreciate his scout dog’s superior senses as it found camouflaged tunnels, base camps, booby traps and hidden enemies.

The focal points of the memorial are the four principal breeds used as military working dogs since World War II—Belgian Malinois, German shepherd, Doberman pinscher and Labrador retriever—surrounding a handler. “As a nation, we owe our war dogs a tremendous debt of gratitude,” Burnam said at the dedication. The monument will “ensure they are honored and remembered forever.”