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.

By World War II, the Germans upped the ante, training more than 200,000 dogs for a variety of duties. Russia, Great Britain, France, and the Japanese also used war dogs.

The U.S. opened its first military dog training center in July 1942. The dogs were donated by patriotic citizens, and the dog handlers were military personnel who volunteered because they loved dogs. Unofficially known as the K-9 Corps, dog and handler acted as a team, and the dogs that survived returned home to their families.

That tradition was broken in Vietnam. More than 4,000 dogs were procured by the government and sent to Vietnam to serve as scouts, sentries, and mine and tunnel detectors, and in search-and-rescue missions. Although only 281 were officially killed in action, only about 200 returned to the United States. Army veterinarians euthanized many; many more were simply abandoned, and in all likelihood wound up as dinner for starving Vietnamese villagers.

"These dogs were acquired, trained, deployed, and abandoned without honor. We have to be their voice," said Burnam.

John R. Harvey, chairman of the fund's advisory committee and a former marine who served in Vietnam as a dog handler, concurs.

"The dogs that served in Vietnam were essentially characterized as equipment and left behind," he said. "Members of the VDHA felt it was important that the heroism and contributions war dogs have made to soldiers in the field over the past century be recognized."

Establishing a Memorial

Building a national memorial requires efforts on several fronts: raising money, pushing legislation, and identifying an artist and a location. "So far we've collected a little more than $100,000 from 3,000 donors," said Harvey.

Very little is spent on overhead. "Incidental costs like mailings, production of brochures and so on have been subsidized by VDHA or individual members; it's basically an act of love and contribution, and we're very proud of that."

The field of sculptors has been narrowed from sixteen to three; the memorial design will be selected by the membership of the VDHA at their biannual reunion being held in St. Louis, Missouri, October 10 to 13.

Finding Congressional sponsorship and moving a bill through Congress that mandates a national memorial is probably the toughest task.

"It's a slow process," said Burnam. "It takes a while to get face time with any Congressional leader, and with the current focus on homeland security we know it's going to be a long and tough road to get this dedicated.

"But we won't stop. We've had unbelievable support from the public and nobody thinks this is a losing battle."

Dogs With Jobs

Viewers of the National Geographic Channel outside the United States can watch the television series Dogs With Jobs.

Now in its third season, Dogs With Jobs explores new and unusual jobs and sheds more light on the powerful bonds between working dogs and their human partners. Every episode stars amazing dogs.

This season of Dogs with Jobs sniffs out a truffle hound in Italy and goes to Florida to track down a bat dog and a termite buster. Fourteen breeds never before seen on the show make an appearance, including Japanese Shiba Inu, Gos d'Atura Catala (Catalan sheepdogs), Spanish water dogs, the Hungarian Pumi, and Karelian bear dogs.

Visit our international Web sites for details of the National Geographic Channel listings in your country.

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