Military dogs don’t exactly lead lives of comfort. When not deployed, they generally sleep on the floor of concrete kennels. They work hard, giving it their all while training and working in all kinds of conditions around the globe. Sometimes they get hurt. Mostly, life just takes a toll, no matter how much they love their handlers or their work.
The people who adopt these heroes when they retire often end up with astronomical veterinary bills as the dogs grow older. For years, the U.S. War Dogs Association (USWDA) has been trying to get these K-9 veterans the medical coverage they deserve — kind of a Veterans Administration for the four-legged set. But regulations prohibit federal funding of such a program, so the organization’s founder, Ron Aiello, has been looking for alternative ways to take care of these retirees.
This Veterans Day we have great news: USWDA has teamed up with the American Humane Association and Red Bank Veterinary Hospitals to launch the first of what they hope will be many free specialty medical programs for retired military dogs and contract dogs. Red Bank will use its five hospitals across New Jersey to provide free specialty care, including diagnostics, surgery, and pain management. (Applause!)
The only hitch is that for now, at least, owners of these hero dogs have to get their dogs to New Jersey. USWDA will try to arrange free lodging during diagnoses and treatment, but transportation isn’t (yet) covered. Still, it’s a strong start to this brand-new program, which Aiello hopes will evolve into a nationwide network of veterinary clinics by early 2015.
“Right now I feel so blessed that we are able to offer this service to our retired MWDs and CWDs,” Aiello told us. “For 11 years now we have been supporting our active military working dogs and their handlers through Operation Military Care K9, and now we are able to continue that support in their retirement years.”
Any adoptive MWD or CWD owners interested in participating in the program should go to the U.S. War Dogs Association site and fill in the necessary paperwork, including supplying adoption forms.
This is the best Veterans Day present for these dogs and the people who love them. Job very well done, everyone! Can’t wait to watch it expand throughout the United States!
[I originally wrote this for Dogster.com. It’s reprinted here with permission.]
Marine dog Lucca is my hero. The German shepherd-Malinois mix led more than 400 missions during three deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, and no one she served with ever got hurt. Lucca’s job was to sniff out IEDs and other deadly explosives, which she was trained to do off leash. She found plenty, saving countless lives. But the last one found her first.
Lucca lost her left front leg and retired after a lifetime of selfless service. She now lives the good life with her original handler and his family in Southern California. Sometimes her second handler visits from the Midwest, and the two handlers “co-parent” Lucca. It’s heartwarming to watch Lucca with her two favorite men in the world at her side.
There are so many reasons to love this three-legged Marine hero. Here are 10 of them, complete with photos.
1. She has your back when you need it
Lucca faithfully protects her second handler, Juan “Rod” Rodriguez, while on deployment with Special Forces in Afghanistan. She wasn’t trained to do this. She just did it.
2. She works like a dog to save her people from bombs
Lucca and her legendary nose get the lay of the land in Baghdad on her first combat deployment, with handler Chris Willingham. Even now, in retirement, she sometimes checks out places for bombs for old time’s sake.
3. She knows when to take a hand from a friend…
Willingham keeps up his end of a pact he made with Lucca after a grueling morning in Iraq.
It’s a long story involving a triple amputee who threw Lucca his prosthetic hand at Walter Reed National Military Center because he liked her. It bounced like a Kong. What else was she supposed to do?
5. She looks fabulous no matter what she wears
Lucca looks almost proud to be wearing handler Chris Willingham’s shirt during some down time on their second deployment to Iraq, doesn’t she? Her then “boyfriend,” Posha, looks like he’s not quite so sure about his outfit.
6. And if she doesn’t, she doesn’t care
Wonky Doggles? Not a problem for Lucca, who is always up for a laugh and a wag.
7. She fights through adversity
Lucca starts on the road to recovery after a top surgical team consisting of veterinarians and “human” doctors amputated her leg because of the damage inflicted by the IED. Two days after surgery, she was walking unaided. Because she’s just that kind of dog.
8. And thrives on new missions now
Lucca’s missions have changed since her retirement. When she accompanies Willingham, who adopted her, to schools and veterans/military hospitals, it’s hard to tell who enjoys the visits more — Lucca or those she’s visiting.
9. She savors each day
Lucca is a genuinely happy dog who seems to see the best in everything and everyone. Here, the contented legend enjoys her well-deserved 10th birthday celebration with her loving family.
10. And lives life to the fullest…Always
We can all learn a lot from this beautiful hero. She’s a great inspiration to me. I hope she will be to you, too.
The last time Marine Sergeant Daniel Cornier saw his K9 partner Darko, the Belgian Malinois was sticking his nose through the bars of his kennel at Camp Pendleton, looking as devastated as Cornier felt. “It was horrible for both of us. He just knew,” says Cornier.
That was in late 2012, not long after they returned from a successful deployment supporting Army Special Forces in Afghanistan. Darko, a specialized search dog, had made a name for himself as a super high-drive dog whose biggest passion was seeking out explosives. It helped that he was obsessed with Kongs and loved getting praise from Cornier. During that deployment, Darko had 11 finds, and saved countless live.
As so often happens in the military dog world, shortly after they returned from deployment, their assignments didn’t dovetail. So Cornier shipped off to Yuma, Arizona, while Darko stuck around the kennels at Pendleton. He was well cared for, but wasn’t assigned to another handler.
Not a day went by when Cornier didn’t think of his best friend.
Darko’s original handler had wanted to adopt him, but when the time came for the Darko to be dispo’d, he was unable to take him. Next on the list was Cornier.
He got the phone call while he was vacationing in Florida a couple of weeks ago. Cornier, who recently adopted a military dog from Lackland Air Force Base when he thought he wouldn’t be getting Darko, was ecstatic. He couldn’t wait to get back and help his best friend retire in style.
But would Darko, now 10, remember him? It had been some 18 months since they last saw each other, and Darko had gone on three deployments, but only one with Cornier.
On Sunday, he and his girlfriend drove from Yuma, Ariz., to San Diego. He felt like a kid at Christmas, and could barely contain his excitement about picking up Darko the next day. “I can’t believe he’ll be coming home with us. He’s waited a long time to become a civilian,” Cornier said.
Check out this video we put together from the footage he sent us of their happy reunion. Do you think Darko remembered?
Darko has adjusted beautifully to civilian life. He loves sleeping on beds and couches, has plenty of toys, and is getting along well with Rromano, Cornier’s other adopted military dog.
Here’s to a wonderful and long retirement! He sure deserves it!
If you’re interested in reading more about Darko’s phenomenal bomb-search abilities and his time in Afghanistan with Lucca, he’s in my next book, Top Dog: The Story of Marine Hero Lucca, which is available for pre-order.
Can you help this Marine find a dog handler he was wounded with in 1968? (Tragically, the dog, Wolf, was KIA that day.) It would mean the world to him. He has been trying to no avail for more than four decades. The handler’s nickname was probably “Heck.” Please read on for more details. I’ll post it in the form of his correspondence to me and try to stay out of the way of his words and his story. My words will be in italics. The rest are his. (The photos of dogs in Vietnam are not photos of Wolf. They’re just reminders of these canine heroes. They come courtesy of the excellent 366th Security Police K-9 website.)
Dear Maria, I have been trying for over 40 years, with no success, to find the name of the dog handler with whom I was wounded on 22 May 1968 while serving with the 3d Bn, 3d Marines along DMZ in RVN. His dog, Wolf, was KIA on that date. The handler was wounded and I was wounded trying to help the handler. The handler was an attachment (presumably from 3d MP Bn in Danang) so his name does not appear on the 3/3 unit records. Do you have an sources who can help? Many thanks. Semper Fi. . .
Tim Snyder, New Mexico–former S-2 scout.
I was, of course, intrigued by his request. I wanted to help him, so asked him for more details and any in-country photos so we could have the best chance of finding this man. He wrote back:
Thank you for your prompt response! The VDHA site lists Wolf (ID 150X) as KIA on 22 May 1968. It lists his handler as John Guerrero. I found John in Atlanta and he was very glad to speak with me. He said that he rotated out of country in April ’68 (a month before my incident) and had to leave Wolf behind. He didn’t know the name of the handler that was getting Wolf.
I had only been in-country for four months when I was wounded and medevaced out and this was my first experience working with this dog and handler. I remember that the handler was a little older (maybe 26?) and that he wouldn’t swear so his nickname was ‘Heck’. I’ve talked with some of my fellow scouts and they couldn’t remember his name either.
On the morning of 22 May, I was on the point of India Company (3/3) with Heck when Wolf alerted. Our protocol called for sending the dog and handler back down the column after an alert because there was nothing more the dog could do for us–plus the dog would draw enemy fire in a firefight. The patrol moved forward for about 15 minutes when our flank engaged the enemy and than we were all engaged. Four of us in the point element were isolated for a while and fought from a bomb crater. When we could no longer hold that position, we beat feet back to where the main column was and I heard Heck calling my name. I ran over to him (about 50 meters), not paying attention to where he was. On the way I passed Wolf, lying on the ground, dead. Heck had a hole in his lower leg that was bleeding badly and I was kneeling by his leg pulling out a bandage to stop the bleeding when a piece of shrapnel from a chicom hand grenade entered my right chest, pierced my lung, and exited my back. I rocked back on my heels and Heck could see that we were both in trouble–particularly since we were in an exposed area out in front of where our company was. Heck told me, “I’ll go this way, and you go that way, and we’ll meet at the LZ.” That was the last time I saw him.
I was in some sort of shock and I couldn’t move for a while. The guys behind me could see me out front and were telling me they’d get me, but the fire was too intense. After about 15 minutes, I was able to cut my pack off and low-crawl along a narrow depression. When I started to draw fire (I was close enough to see the eyes of the enemy soldier firing at me), I decided my only chance was to get up and run. My guys caught me as I stumbled back into the perimeter and took me to the LZ. I don’t remember who was there but I knew it was crowded. There were two supply choppers bringing in more ammo, who were also picking up dead and wounded. I got the last slot by the door and watched the enemy mortar rounds raining into the LZ as we pulled up. Everybody on the ground was scattering.
When the choppers landed in Dong Ha, all the stretcher cases were hustled into the hospital. I was left alone because I could still walk. I made it into the hospital and passed out on the floor. I remember somebody saying, “Hey, this guy’s got a red tag”, and the next thing I remember is a bleary-eyed surgeon telling corpsmen to get me into the operating room. They stripped my clothing, turned me on my side, put my right arm over my head and the doc said, “Now hold him”. He sliced my right side with a scalpel and shoved a drainage tube down into my lung. I was very awake at that point and, regrettably, had more than a few choice words for those working on me. They gave me a shot of morphine afterwards and I asked the corpsman why they didn’t give me something before. I’ll never forget his words, “There’s no time for that here, man. As long as we can hear you scream we know you’re alive.”
Anyway, that’s my story, and it would bring closure to me if I could talk to Heck and find out the rest of his story. I attended a battalion reunion earlier this month and asked around with no luck. I got my VFW magazine in the mail yesterday and saw Soldier Dogs on a list of new war-related books. I haven’t yet ordered it, but will soon.
Anything you can do to help find Heck would be much-appreciated. In my book, he was a great guy just doing his job like the rest of us. I’m sorry I don’t have any photos of myself at that time or of him. We lived in the bush most of the time, and very few of us carried a camera.
When I wrote him again, I asked him if he was comfortable putting into words if he had any thoughts or feelings about that day, scout dogs, this dog, the situation, and just why he’d like to be in touch with the handler again. I was going to help him either way, of course, but I thought it would be helpful if putting this story out to dog handlers and dog lovers, we had some of his perspective about the dog, etc. This was not problem. Tim had a lot to say about this, and it’s very touching:
A little background on the scout dogs from one (old) Marine’s perspective. . . They were critically important to the common grunt, and we knew it. Everybody had respect for the dogs. Not only did they save lives (ours!) by telling us when the enemy was near, but they worked in the same conditions we did. They slogged through the same paddies, brush, and jungle. They were hot and tired just like us, and the oppressive RVN heat and humidity had to have been miserable for the German Shepherds with their heavy coats.
Their handlers evoked the same respect. We knew that the dogs were trained to obey only one man so everybody else had to keep their distance. The dogs were not known for being friendly, and any bystander who got too close received a warning growl that was unmistakable in its message.
Even in good times, there’s a certain cachet about a man and his dog. In war, that is intensified. We were all a bit envious of a Marine whose duties consisted of caring for and working with a dog whose only allegiance was to him. AND, not any dog, mind you–but a German Shepherd. It can’t get much better than that for a guy.
Handlers and their dogs were assigned to a central unit–ours were from the 3d Military Police Battalion in Danang–but “attached” to operational units. This meant that they were moved around frequently and didn’t ordinarily have time to develop relationships with their attached units. The S-2 scouts were the same. We were formally assigned to Headquarters and Service Company but attached to line companies. I worked mostly with India Company. Heck was calling my name because I was most likely one of the few guys he knew, plus I hope he felt like he could count on me to help.
On my run to Heck, I actually leaped over Wolf. Things were happening so fast that all I could think was “oh, no” and kept running. Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about that. I’ve looked at Wolf’s name time and again on the VDHA page and I have his ID memorized. When I found his former handler, John Guerrero, I could tell that he loved Wolf. He had heard that Heck had walked Wolf into a U-shaped ambush and he was glad to hear a different story from me.
I wonder what the KIA rate was for the scout dogs as compared to regular grunts? It may have been myth, but we strongly felt that the dogs drew enemy fire for two reasons, 1) the enemy knew that the dogs could detect them, and 2) it cost a lot more to train a dog than a Marine. (I don’t know if #2 is true or not, but that’s the story that went around.)
For those reasons, Marines in a firefight don’t want to be anywhere around anything or anybody (even a dog) that will draw extra enemy fire. Marksmanship is not at a premium in chaotic firefights, just fire superiority. So anybody positioned near a target was bound to be “included” in the volume of fire.
Of course, the need to protect the dog and handler was another reason for sending them back into the column after alerting. As cited before, they were extraordinarily important to us.
My drive to find Heck is four-fold. First, I would like to find out the rest of the story. Did he make it out? How did he make it out? Is he okay now? Second, I would like him to know why I couldn’t finish helping him. I’m sure all he knew was that I was bending over him and then just blanked out. I was conscious but largely unresponsive. He did the right thing by leaving. He couldn’t help me and I couldn’t help him. The two of us together made a more conspicuous target. Third, I would like to thank him. He was a friend to me, and he called to me. That meant a lot to me. Fourth, I would like to share my sympathies for the loss of Wolf. Their bond had to have been strong, and I can only imagine how hard it must have been to lose him.
In summary, I guess I am seeking a measure of closure to events that have lived with me every day since then.
Just so you know, after I was finally discharged from a stateside hospital, I volunteered to go back to Vietnam and made it a full 13 months without major mishap. I got out of the Marines, got married, and then re-enlisted for another five years, the last two of which I served as a Warrant Officer for the 12th Marines in Okinawa. My wife and I had three children while I was still serving, and another four afterwards. I went back to school and went into school teaching, and then school administration. I am retired now, and my wife and I enjoy our 26 grandchildren. We just returned from a two-year church mission to Cambodia so I now have time to resume my search for Heck.
Maria, I really appreciate your help AND listening ear. I have attached three photos–an official one taken four months after I was wounded, one taken about a year later on the USS Iwo Jima, and a candid shot of an aging warrior. I am searching for a photo taken of me at Tripler Army Hospital in Honolulu and will send it if I can find it.
Again, many thanks for helping out on this. You are wonderful!
Tim, you’re a pretty wonderful person yourself, being able to write such a heartfelt account of that terrible day so long ago, and keeping this hero in your thoughts for this long. I really hope our community can help you get closure on this. Thanks for letting us lend a hand.
OK folks, please help spread the word about this Marine’s wish. I know there’s a very strong Vietnam handlers’ community out there, and it would sure be nice if someone could help him find this handler.
There’s nothing like a reunion, especially with a military dog who saved your life – and the lives of many others – on numerous occasions during dangerous deployments. After too many months apart, you wonder if the dog will even recognize you, much less be happy to see you.
Last week, Marine Gunnery Sgt. Chris Willingham, who is serving in Helsinki, Finland, had the reunion of a lifetime when his old military working dog, Lucca K458, stepped off a plane with her most recent handler, Marine Cpl. Juan Rodriguez. The 8-year-old Belgian Malinois was a little older, and missing one leg because of her last heroic act in war, but he’d have recognized her anywhere. Did Lucca recognize him? Read on in these dispatches Gunny Willingham sent us from Finland. (I got to know Gunny Willingham during my research into the tragic story of Cpl. Max Donahue’s for my book Soldier Dogs. He was his platoon sergeant, and thought the world of him.)
Dispatches to Soldier Dogs by Gunny Willingham
In 2006, I was paired with Specialized Search Dog Lucca. We served two tours in Iraq and we were extremely successful. Lucca was credited with numerous finds and the arrest of 5 insurgents. Kris Knight can tell you what a special dog Lucca is.
Upon returning from Afghanistan in December 2010, I received orders to Marine Security Guard School. I’m currently serving at the US Embassy in Helsinki, Finland. Before I left, I was able to select the handler to take over as Lucca’s handler. I selected Cpl. Rodriguez. We have the same personalities and I knew he would make a great team with Lucca. In November 2011, I headed to Helsinki, Finland and Cpl. Rodriguez, Lucca and the rest of my old platoon headed back to Afghanistan.
Lucca and Rodriguez were very successful during there deployment. The were in direct support of a Special Operations unit. On 23 March, while walking point on a patrol, Lucca responded to an IED. As they began to sweep for secondaries, a second device exploded. Lucca was injured but immediately started running back to Rodriguez. Rodriguez, ran and met her half way, quickly assessed the injuries and applied a tourniquet, which saved her life, then called in a MEDEVAC.
No member of the patrol was hurt. Lucca, again, was responsible for saving lives. She suffered burns to her neck and torso and her front left leg had to later be amputated.
She is currently at Camp Pendleton, where she recovered from the injury. Despite the amputation, Lucca can run around and is serving as the Kennel’s mascot. Most importantly, she has the same personality. She is amazing and her recovery was better than any one could have expected.
A couple weeks ago, she was cleared for retirement and I submitted my adoption package. Today, Rodriguez’s passport came in the mail. I am going to fly her and Rodriguez to Finland. Rodriguez will stay for 10 -12 days before returning to California. I thought it would be a great transition for Lucca and I wanted to personally thank Rodriguez for saving her life.
I’m trying to arrange a flight through American Airlines for the first week of July; Depart 3-5 July and return 16 July. The Embassy staff have been very supportive of my efforts to get Lucca over here. I’m trying to get her flown over here in the cabin since she is retired Explosive detection dog. I know it’s a long shot but i was wondering if you have an connections with American Airlines.
MG note: I searched around and made a couple of possible connections in the next few days, but he beat me to it.
I’m getting all the details on Monday but I think American Airlines is going to pay for the airfare for Lucca and Rodriguez. Rodriguez was also on my first deployment to Afghanistan, with Max Donahue. He had a Patrol Explosive Detection dog, RRolfe, the first deployment.
She should be here in the next week to ten days. I can’t wait.
This story took on a life of its own. Cpl. Rodriguez and Lucca arrived at Helsinki yesterday, Friday, at 0830. He was greeted by two camera crews in San Diego. When they arrived in Chicago for there layover, they held a brief ceremony with color guard and she received cheers from the people in the airport.
When she arrived in Helsinki, the Ambassador, some other key Embassy employees and I met Lucca at a private terminal. Basically, the plane landed and pulled up to gate 38 and only let Lucca and Rodriguez off and then off loaded everyone else at a different gate. Also, there were about 12 camera crews and journalist covering the story. One of the press members joked that Lucca received more press coverage than the recent visit of Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.
Jill and the kids made four “welcome home” signs that we posted up in the terminal. American Airlines also had a couple swag bags for Lucca and Rodriuez along with a display of with pics of Lucca.
When they first entered the terminal, I knelt down and it was almost like you could see it process for her in slow motion when she approached me. It took a couple seconds to realize she was home. Lucca immediately started licking my face for about a solid minute. It brought back a lot of old memories seeing Lucca and Rodriguez.
About 2 weeks after I reported to Finland, my old platoon deployed. I kept in touch with a lot of the Marines and I would call Leatherneck every few weeks to check in with the Kennelmaster, SSgt Nuckles. On March 23rd, when Lucca was injured, I talked to Rodriguez about six hours after the incident. My first concern was to ensure Rodriguez was okay. We stayed in contact over the next week until Lucca and Rod returned to Camp Pendleton. She started doing really well during her rehab so, the next step was to discuss adoption. Rodriguez and I had a conversation about the adoption, and it was clear he wanted her to be reunited with me and my family. I worked with GySgt Green to submit the adoption paperwork.
3 1/2 months later, Lucca and Rodriguez arrived in Finland. Words cannot describe the feelings of being reunited with a Working Dog, who had saved my life numerous times. Also, I was also equally exciting and important to see Cpl Rodriguez. He also, knew what a special dog Lucca is. During a dismounted patrol on March 23rd, Lucca responded on an IED, it was here second IED to find during the patrol. Rodriguez began searching for secondaries, when a second device exploded. Wounded, Lucca began running back to the patrol. Rodriguez met her half way and applied a tourniquet with follow on first aid which saved Lucca’s life. She suffered burns to her neck and torso and her front left leg had to later be amputated.
A couple reporters followed us back to our house to capture the first few moments of Lucca being home. Lucca and Rodriguez both slept for about 4-5 hours. Around 1730, we went to the Marine house and hosted a BBQ. About 30 Embassy employees and their families came out to meet Lucca and Rodriguez. Also, we had Janis, who is the American Airlines representative, who made this whole trip possible, and two of the pilots who flew Lucca and Rod over. It was a great event and everyone was excited to meet Lucca and Rod.
Rodriguez will stay with me and my family for the next 12 days. Lucca will be sleeping in his room because I know
Lucca means a lot to Rod as well, and I want them to spend time together over the next couple weeks. Plus, I think it will serve as a good transition for Lucca to have both of us around for a couple weeks.
I will be the first to admit that dogs are “proven but not perfect.” In fact, I would often use that phrase in my capabilities and limitations brief to supporting units while deployed. However, every patrol that Lucca led during her three combat deployments, resulted in zero injuries. Even the patrol when Lucca was hurt, no other member of the patrol was injured.
Lucca was responsible for saving hundreds of lives and she was also directly responsible for the arrest of five insurgents. Again, it was hard to describe the feeling of being reunited with a couple of heroes in Lucca and Cpl. Rodriguez.
When you see a photo like this, you cringe first, ask questions later.
So that’s what I did. When Marine combat correspondent and photojournalist Cpl. Aaron Diamont sent me this photo, I winced for the poor Marine who’s being chomped on by military working dog Bernie, at the Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz. Then I asked questions. Those questions resulted in this great explanation by Diamont, who was on the scene (although not the photographer, and not the decoy) when this happened.
Bernie is the greatest MWD I’ve ever had the pleasure of encountering. She’ll always be special to me, even though I love all of the dogs we’ve got here. She’s just got the greatest personality, even though the first time we met, she bit a young Marine in the inner thigh…
The photo is from a Combat Camera guy who was out there who managed to capture the look on the Marine’s face as four canine teeth punctured the tender flesh of his thigh. As soon as Bret (Bret Reynolds, his handler) realized what happened, he called her off of the guy and he went to help the guy out. Bernie ran right over to me and sat down next to me, looking up at me. I know dogs pretty well, and the look on her face said, “Hi. Pet me, and I’ll love you forever,” but I had just watched her bite a guy’s leg, and it was the first time I’d ever seen her or Bret.
I let Bret know she was with me, and he reassured me she was friendly, so I somewhat nervously reached down to pet her. Within a few minutes, I took a knee and she laid down and rolled over so
I could give her a belly rub. She gave me a few kisses too. From then on, she was always the dog I wanted to see when I was at the kennels.
The funny part about the incident, a doc was telling Bret that he needed Bernie’s shot records, and Bret had the best reply ever; “This is a military working dog, trust me, she’s up to date on all of her shots. If anything, I need to see your Marine’s shot records to make sure he didn’t give anything to my dog.” Bret has this gift of exceptional bearing, and said the whole thing in a very convincing manner, then let out a few laughs when the doc went away. But after a few quick chuckles, it was back to business, training a Combat Logistics Regiment’s security company about the capabilities of MWDs.
The Marine wasn’t badly hurt, fortunately. Bernie has since retired. She was a super popular dog at her kennels, and I’ll be doing a post on her and her retirement years soon. Watching TV from the couch and getting belly rubs are among her favorite retirement hobbies. As far as I know, she has sworn off crotch/thigh-biting.
The items on the Bed, Bath & Beyond wedding gift registry of Brittany Dygert and U.S. Marine Corps military working dog handler Corporal Keaton Coffey are those of an optimistic young couple launching their new, happy life together. The gifts are simple, functional, and basic.
You could almost picture the couple’s future home life together as you check out some of the items.
There’s the pizza wheel for the casual nights entertaining friends and family. Ditto for the Mr. Bar-B-Q 8-piece barbecue tool set, complete with carrying case.
And there are the turkey-lifter forks and stainless steel baster for the Thanksgiving feast they’d host when everyone else finally got done hosting the newlyweds. It could be years.
Let’s not forget the muffin tin and ice-cream scoop for sweet times, maybe even with their future children.
Or the crock-pot for cozy meals on busy family days.
If you’d looked at the list two days ago, it would have been a reflection of the hopes and dreams of this couple for their wedding day, July 14 – not long after Coffey’s return with his dog from a 7-month deployment in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.
But their wedding registry has taken on a sickening, tragic pallor.
With one bullet from a Taliban sniper, it’s all over. Corporal Keaton G. Coffey, age 22, is dead.
There will be no pizza nights, no Thanksgiving dinners, no hearty family stews. There won’t be any children to bask in the aroma of fresh-baked cupcakes, or to enjoy a scoop of ice-cream on a warm summer day as dad cleans up the Mr. Bar-B-Q tools from dinner.
Coffey’s dog, who doted on him, will be coming home without him. The German shepherd is probably already confused about why he hasn’t seen his best friend for two days, when they had been spending every moment together during their grueling deployment.
And I can’t begin to imagine the raw, unreal pain of his fiancé, family, and friends.
The United States still has some 600 military working dog teams deployed in war zones. I don’t know how many tens of thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines are deployed at any given time, but I do know there’s a growing impatience – even among those who have usually supported all Defense Department decisions – about bringing everyone home.
More and more, I’m hearing the question, “Why?” As in why are we still there? Why are we making these inconceivable sacrifices?
It’s a question all too familiar to anyone around during Vietnam. And as with that era, casualties and deaths of our troops are barely making the news these days, except in hometown stations.
Upon reading the news of Cpl. Coffey on my Soldier Dogs Facebook page yesterday, the mother of an Air Force dog handler who will soon be deploying with his dog wrote this:
“The news has forgotten to mention our children, society has forgotten to remember our children, but the 45 % of families still live with this war on a daily basis. May God bless each and every one of them.”
The majority of us have no relatives in the military. Unlike past wars that pulled combatants from every walk of life, today’s wars are being fought by a small slice of Americans. It’s too easy to forget them if they’re not real to us.
If you’re among the Americans who have no family members in the war, and you
need a Memorial Day reminder of the humanity and reality of these men and women, take a look at the wedding wish list of hairdresser Brittany Dygert and Marine Corporal Keaton Coffey. There, somewhere among the salad spinners and serving plates and cookbook stands, lie the ghosts of dreams of our oft-forgotten heroes and those who love them.
Until the now-famous Navy SEAL Team Six raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound last year, most people had no idea that dogs are a vital part of the military. But these four-legged heroes have saved tens of thousands of lives since World War II, when the U.S. embarked on its military working dog program.
I grew up steeped in the importance of war dogs thanks to my dad, who was a very young soldier back then. He told me about the bonds the handlers had with their dogs, and how the dogs – as important as they were on missions – were just as essential for the morale of troops. His stories struck a chord with me, and I was thrilled years later when I got a chance to write a book about brave, loyal, amazing dogs and their devoted handlers.
My book, Soldier Dogs: The Untold Story of America’s Canine Heroes, was published last month, and I’m excited that after all the hard work and boots-on-the-ground reporting the book entailed, people are really starting to take notice of these incredible dogs and their handlers. The book has received a lot of attention, including a great review in People magazine, and a fun stint for me on The Daily
. (Update: The book has become a New York Times Best Seller!)
This puts a wag in my tail, because I am passionate about these dog teams. The more people know about them, the better off the dogs and handlers will be. So today I bring you 10 surprising facts about today’s military dog teams. All photos except the plane jumper are of dogs and handlers featured in my book. Here’s to our paws-on-the-ground heroes!
1. Soldier dogs are selected for the military based in part on their love of a ball or a Kong.
This reward is going to be part of their “paycheck” for years to come (a handler’s heartfelt praise is the other part), and they have to want the ball really badly to work as hard as they need to in order to save lives in combat situations.
2. Soldier dogs believe in magic.
If they didn’t, they may not be the lifesavers they are. The main job for military dogs in today’s wars is sniffing out IEDs, which are the number one killer in Afghanistan. But how does a dog get to know the difference between an explosive and an interesting-smelling rock? Magic, of a sort.
A dog’s early encounters associating a scent with a reward are all about the surprising appearance of a Kong that seems to spring right out of the scent itself. Trainers hide a Kong toy or ball somewhere, and place a few drops of a scent in the area. When the dog hits the scent, he thinks, “Whoa! I’ve never smelled this before!” and shows a tiny change of behavior, perhaps stopping or wagging or tilting his head. At that moment, a trainer throws the ball so it lands right on the source of the odor, and the dog is cheered on for his “feat.”
This happens a few more times, placing the odor in various spots and having a ball “magically” land on it when the dog successfully sniffs the odor. Many dogs learn extremely rapidly to associate an odor and a ball. (Eventually they’re weaned from this and get the ball reward in a different way.) That dogs can believe the scent of something like potassium chlorate magically creates a bouncing Kong is just one of those things that makes them so loveable and endearing.
3. The bond between a deployed handler and soldier dog is like no other.
I was blown away by the love that even the toughest of these soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have for their canine comrades. When you’re at war and you’re together almost 24/7 (sometimes sharing a tent, or even a sleeping bag or foxhole, for weeks on end), when you depend on each other for everything, including your very lives, an incomparable bond forms. Hearing a war-hardened Marine’s voice break when he talks about his best friend is a very moving experience.
4. Not all soldier dogs are big, tough warriors.
Sure, breeds like German shepherds and Belgian Malinois are the most common war dogs these days, but affable Labrador retrievers play a major role as sniffer dogs in Afghanistan. And there are also some very little dogs in the military. But I learned that “little” does not mean “diminutive.”
I had the pleasure of meeting a Jack Russell terrier, Lars J274, on a nuclear submarine as he sniffed around for explosives last summer. He was a jaunty little fellow with a Napoleon complex. Submariners would laugh has he trotted down the narrow walkways, but he didn’t care. “Inside, he’s a big dog with a big attitude,” his handler told me.
5. Dogs are the ultimate anthropologists.
They study us. They observe us. They smell changes in our very chemistry. They learn to predict us. And they seem to know when their people are having a bad day.
Rex L274 was a big, sensitive German shepherd. He had failed out of aggression training because anytime he bit someone wearing protective gear during practice, and they yelled or screamed in response, he immediately let go and seemed to look concerned and sad. So his career path changed, and he became a highly trained off-leash bomb sniffer.
His sensitivity to the people around him played out in the form of becoming a sort of unofficial therapy dog wherever he went. “He’d always find the one soldier who was having a hard day and hang out with them,” his handler, Army Sgt. Amanda Ingraham, told me. His favorite therapy was to cheer up down soldiers by getting them to play with a water bottle. After all, he liked playing with water bottles, so it would seem natural that they would too. He’d run up and bonk them with a water bottle (empty or full, it didn’t matter). Or he’d sit next to him crunching the bottle and periodically banging it against the soldier with the blues. Eventually the soldier would take the bait, and a grand game of tug-of-war or a big chase would ensue.
6. Some dogs really do jump from planes.
These extremely resilient, super-high-drive dogs are specially procured and trained by military contractors, not the DOD’s Military Working Dog program. Some join their human partners in parachute jumps from planes, others rappel with their handlers from helicopters. The dogs who do this are known as multi-purpose canines (MPCs), and are used used in Special Operations teams, including the Navy SEALs. They’re a tiny subset of military dogs, but can serve very important roles, as Cairo, the dog involved in the SEAL Team Six raid on the Bin Laden compound, demonstrated.
7. Soldier dogs can get PTSD.
Until last year, canine post traumatic stress disorder wasn’t officially recognized by the military, but now that it is, it’s being taken very seriously. Signs of Canine PTSD include hypervigilance, increased startle response, attempts to run away or escape, withdrawal, changes in rapport with a handler, and problems performing trained tasks – like a bomb dog who just can’t focus on sniffing out bombs any more.
As with people, some dogs can go to hell and back and not be badly scarred. Others are profoundly affected by less. There are treatments, but they aren’t as effective as they need to be. Research into canine PTSD is in its infancy, but I hope it will one day soon offer some better solutions for the dogs who are suffering so.
While at Lackland Air Force Base, which is where most military dogs get trained, I visited the base’s adoption kennels and was greeted by the loads of barking, energetic dogs. But this one beautiful chocolate Lab, Buck P027, was curled up tightly, staring out into nothingness. It turns out Buck had been a bomb dog in Afghanistan. He may have seen too much action or been close to one too many explosions. It was really heartbreaking to see this dog who was crushed by PTSD lying alone. Thankfully the next day he went home with a couple who loves him to pieces. They’re working on helping him through his PTSD every day. I am in touch with them and get regular reports on his progress.
8. Soldier dog names can be downright embarrassing to their handlers.
Dogs are named by their breeders, who are hail from places like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the Netherlands, and Germany. There are plenty of regal or at least normal names, like Rex, Nero, and Rocky. And then there are the unfortunate or oddball ones. Imagine being downrange in a life-or-death situation, and shouting for “Baby Cakes!” “Baby Bear!” “Busty!” or “Moo!” Yes, those are real military working dog names.
Male dogs sometimes have female names, like Kitty, or Freida, and vice-versa. The handler of Freida said it was very awkward calling his name. He swears the breeders are just messing with American handlers, and I have a feeling he’s right.
9. When soldier dogs die, their memorial services will rip your heart out.
Their bowls are placed upside down, to symbolize that they won’t need them anymore. Their collars and leashes are hung up in remembrance of the dog. And if the memorial is at a kennel, the dog’s kennel door is left open, indicating the dog will not be returning home. The handler, or someone who can handle the heartbreaking duty, reads a poem called Guardians of the Night. I can’t even think about it without tearing up. A lot of handlers can’t either.
10. Soldier dogs are still officially considered equipment by the Defense Department.
Most handlers consider their dogs their best friends, but to the DOD, military working dogs are still officially equipment.
“I try to articulate dog is not a piece of equipment, but a working, breathing animal that needs to be treated respectfully and kindly,” says Air Force Senior Master Sergeant Antonio (Arod) Rodriguez. “Your dog is your partner, and values meaningful interaction. You just don’t think about equipment in the same way.”
There’s some fantastic legislation in Congress right now that seeks to change this status. You can read about it in a post I wrote for Dogster. In it I explain how you can weigh in on this very important bipartisan bill, The Canine Members of the Armed Forces Act. These dogs deserve all the support we can give them.
Reprinted with permission of the author (me!) from an article at Dogster magazine.