Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from “WAR DOGS: Tales of Canine Heroism, History, and Love” by Rebecca Frankel.
At the end of wars, sometimes it’s the numbers that make the difference.
In World War II, it is said that war dogs saved 15,000 men. In Vietnam, the dogs were credited with saving the lives of 10,000 men, but many handlers who served there feel that this number is grossly underestimated. Of approximately 87,000 missions, the dogs uncovered 2,000 tunnels and bunkers and enabled 1,000 enemy captures and 4,000 enemy kills.
How big that number will be many years from now, when we are in a position to tally the lives saved by dogs in Iraq and Afghanistan, one cannot say. But Technical Sergeant Justin Kitts was awarded his Bronze Star in 2011 for his detection work with Dyngo during their Afghanistan deployment, and for having secured the lives of 30,000 US, host nation, and coalition forces. And that was just for one dog team on one tour of duty. Equally impossible to tally are the lives that have been recovered, even in some small way, by a dog’s cathartic presence, on a battlefield or in a wounded warrior treatment center.
From war to war, these numbers are often forgotten.
It is an unfortunate scenario that’s already played out twice in the United States: post–World War II and post-Vietnam. The value of war dogs has been lost as often as it has been found.
These events usually go a little something like this: the United States engages in a conflict. Someone, a person or group, with great resilience and spirit, petitions the military to adopt a canine fighting force, touting their many lifesaving skills. Someone in a position of power gives an order, and a small contingent of dogs is procured, trained, and deployed. Once in-country, the dogs prove to be of great value on the battlefield and save many lives. Next comes an “urgent need” request from the combat arena: “Send more dogs!” And so efforts are pooled, handlers and dogs are trained with fervor and speed. Sometimes concessions are made, sometimes shortcuts are taken, but more dogs are sent to war. The military parades the dogs’ successes, the media seizes upon their stories, and headlines capture the hearts of civilians at home.
The wars slow down and eventually end. The tremendous canine force is scaled back, as are the combat-ready aspects of the dog programs, until they are virtually nonexistent.
In the years following the Vietnam War, the US military began to disassemble its war dog programs little by little, dismantling ten years of combat readiness. In a shroud of shame, the dog programs slipped away—first the tracker dogs, then the scout dog school at Fort Benning. There was no outside organization watching over the military efforts for the dogs deployed to Vietnam as there was in World War II.
The Vietnam chapter, which will remain a perpetual blemish in the United States’ war dog history, is perhaps the most troubled and difficult to reconcile. But each war has its own dogs—from the Revolutionary War to Vietnam—and each war has its own saga. How the dogs came in, and how they came out again, is as important, in some ways, as what they did while they were there. Their entry and exit unearths a relevant truth. This discernable pattern of US war dog history is one of building to a great success that is later shelved and forgotten, only to be rebuilt again when the need arises. It’s a precedent that creates the kind of disadvantage no one would be able to fully realize until 2004, when it was time to send the dogs back to war, so many years after Vietnam.
Ron Aiello, the Marine handler who served in Vietnam with his scout dog Stormy, remembers how the canine program was dismantled after the war. First they got rid of the Marine Corps scout dogs, the mine dogs, and the booby trap dogs. Then the Army got rid of its tracker dogs. All their combat readiness disappeared. He knew then it was a mistake.
After 9/11 happened and the Iraq war began, Aiello watched the news reports on television, and saw military dogs working checkpoints or sniffing cars as they crossed gates. It infuriated him. He found himself shouting at the television set: “Have them out on patrol! Use them for IEDs!” But he knew the dogs weren’t trained for that kind of work because building up those kinds of programs again from scratch would have taken years.
There are many parallels to draw between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and that in Vietnam: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not been popular ones, and there is a rush to push our military’s attention elsewhere. As the United States closes shop on two wars, the urgent need for dogs is already depleting and will likely continue to lessen over time.
In response, the military working dog program is already downsizing its combat-ready dogs accordingly. All branches of the military are seeing budgetary cuts. The programs that produced the “Dog Surge” of the mid-2000s—the Marine Corps’ Improvised Explosive Detector Dogs and the Army’s Tactical Explosive Detection Dogs—have already reduced their numbers and will certainly be disbanded. The need for dogs has not been extinguished, but it is no longer urgent now that the United States has withdrawn from Iraq and is preparing to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. As one of his final acts as program manager at Lackland before retiring, Sean Lulofs was ordered to investigate cutting the program by one-third. In fact, he found a way to cut it in half.
There’s no way that what happened in 1975 would happen now. The United States military will never again leave its dogs behind as they did in Vietnam. This is in part because of the government’s interest in monitoring the dogs’ exit from the military, manifested in the Robby Law, which mandated diligent record-keeping and turned a watchful eye on how the dogs leave service, but also because there is simply too much public visibility for such gross neglect to exist on such a grand scale. But just how far the programs will diminish, and whether or not war dog lessons of the past, which is to say our present, will be remembered, remains to be seen.
Aiello sees the changes happening today—the troop drawdown, the program cuts, and the thinning of dog teams—and he sees the heavy curtain of past mistakes dropping again.
But what is far more likely to make an impact than a tally of numbers at the end of the war are the efforts and living memories of handlers—like Aiello—who, after their tours of duty ended, became the watchmen of the next generation of dogs, handlers, and war. They are the ones now building memorials and keeping track of the handlers and dogs killed in action. Their memory is institutional and it is long. And just like Aiello and his handler buddies from Vietnam followed in the footsteps of the World War II handlers, so too will the war dog handlers of Iraq and Afghanistan.
When, in 2010, Gunnery Sergeant Justin Harding was with his team of IEDD handlers and dogs in Afghanistan, they made a stop at Camp Dwyer, one of the Marine Corps’ largest military bases in the country, so the handlers could bring their dogs to the veterinarians there. While they were waiting on base, their dogs with them, a lance corporal they didn’t know approached the handlers. This Marine had been with a unit in Marjah where the fighting had been especially fierce. This young man had returned to Dwyer looking battle shocked and worn, and Harding could tell that he’d seen hell. The grief-stricken Marine had just lost some of his friends, but he wanted to thank the handlers and their dogs. “You guys are the shit,” he told them. “You know, you saved our lives and I’m sure not all of you will come back.”
Harding’s infantry handlers, who hadn’t yet been out on patrol, didn’t know how to respond. But for Harding, that singular interaction summed up his entire wartime experience: from getting hit with IEDs, to losing so many of his friends, to trying to help protect the younger generation of Marines, to fighting against higher-ups who denied the dogs the legitimacy he believes they deserved.
Harding will never forget watching that young Marine, who was battered and damaged and already showing signs of the scars he’d likely carry for a lifetime, walk up to the handlers with tears in his eyes and reach out to shake their hands. In that moment he was overcome with the certainty that being in Afghanistan with the dogs was the right thing—the best thing he could have done to save lives in this war.
Excerpted with permission from WAR DOGS: Tales of Canine Heroism, History, and Love by Rebecca Frankel. Available from St. Martin’s Press. Copyright © 2015.