Veterans: Dogs of War Deserve a Memorial

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
July 25, 2002

Most of us think of our dogs as loving, loyal pets that provide us with comfort and companionship. There are soldiers though, who consider them far more: life savers. And it's time that these forgotten American heroes are honored, say former soldiers who worked as dog handlers in the military.

"Thousands and thousands of dogs have given their lives for their handlers," said John Burnam, president of the Vietnam Dog Handlers Association and author of Dog Tags of Courage, a book detailing his experience as a handler in Vietnam. "They should be honored for their bravery and courage. A national memorial will honor all dogs in all wars."

Dogs have served in the U.S. military during every modern war—World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, in Bosnia, and in Afghanistan—as trackers, scouts, sentries, and messengers; as attack dogs, mine detection dogs, and rescue dogs.

The dogs are credited with saving thousands of American lives and great acts of heroism. Some military analysts estimate as many as 10,000 U.S. and allied lives were saved during the Vietnam War alone. But although there are several small memorials around the country dedicated to dogs that served in the military, there is no national memorial honoring their service.

The National War Dog Memorial Fund, launched in April 2001, is a campaign designed to rectify the situation. Spearheaded by former soldiers who served in Vietnam as dog handlers, the campaign's goal is to build a national memorial on hallowed ground in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the service of America's forgotten four-legged heroes.

Dogs in War

Dogs and war go back a long way. More than 4,000 years ago, the ancient Assyrians, Persians, and Babylonians used mastiffs wearing spiked collars to attack their enemies. The Romans were the first to train war-dog units. The dogs wore spiked collars and armor; unleashed in the forward line of battle, they attacked the enemies' legs, causing them to lower their shields and be more vulnerable to attack.

Atilla, King of the Huns from A.D. 433 until his death in A.D. 453, used giant Molossian dogs, precursors of the mastiff, and Talbots, ancestors of the bloodhound, in his campaigns.

During the Middle Ages, war dogs were outfitted with armor and frequently were used to defend caravans. Napoleon used dogs as sentries.

Dogs were first used in the United States as messengers during the Civil War.

By the early part of the twentieth century, most European countries used dogs in their armies. During World War I, the Germans trained 30,000 dogs to act as messengers and rescue workers to locate fallen soldiers. French and Belgian forces used dogs as sentries and messengers.

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