By John Ekdahl
Dogs serving in the United States military is nothing new. They were first used during the Revolutionary War as pack animals, and their responsibilities were expanded in the Civil War to include roles such as guards, messengers and mascots.
World War I marked their official entry into the United States military under the title of Military Working Dogs (often “War Dogs” for short). Along with facilitating communication by carrying messages between units, the dogs were also essential companions to soldiers who suffered through the psychological horrors of trench warfare. By World War II, the Army had launched the “K-9 Corps” which sought to turn the dogs into genuine soldiers. They were now being trained as scouts, mine detectors and sentries.
The Vietnam War saw nearly 5,000 actively serve between 1964 and 1975, of which only 204 were ever brought back home. This, unfortunately, was due to the Army officially listing them as “surplus military equipment”. Most were either euthanized or simply abandoned. Many Vietnam vets have said that having to abandon these dogs was one of the hardest things they have ever had to do.
Fast-forwarding to the present day military, our dogs are treated with much more respect. Call it a victory for canine rights. Gone are the “military equipment” classifications; these dogs are every bit a part of the unit and the bond they share with their handlers is nearly unbreakable.
On December 6, 2010 Pfc. Colton Rusk and his labrador retriever were on patrol in Afghanistan when Rusk was hit by sniper fire.
The pair was serving in Afghanistan when Rusk was hit by Taliban sniper fire on Dec. 6, 2010. Eli was the first to reach him where Rusk fell. The dog crawled on top of Rusk’s body, ferociously protecting his handler “[snapping at the] other Marines who rushed to [Rusk’s aide]. ‘Eli bit one of them,’ said Rusk’s father Darrell, recalling the story told to him by other Marines.”
In all of the articles that have been published since Rusk’s death — and there are many — this fallen handler and his war dog are always described the same way: They were best friends. Family members recount how Rusk broke protocol so that Eli could be by his side all the time, sharing his cot instead of sleeping in the kennel. Rusk’s mother, Kathy, told AP that “”Every time he called home, it was always about Eli. She said it gave her comfort to know her son “wasn’t alone over there.”
After Rusk’s family was informed of his death, they petitioned the military to allow them to adopt Eli. Despite his relative youth and value as a war dog, the military decided to make an exception and grant Eli an early retirement.
In 2009, Company D, 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 2nd Marine Division (Forward) was deployed to southwest Afghanistan to establish a coalition presence in the Khan Neshin District. There they found two dogs, malnourished and mishandled. The Marines decided to adopt the two dogs; naming them Sandy and Scraggles. Sandy was pregnant and when she gave birth to a litter of puppies, the Marines took a liking to one they named Willy Pete. He began to display the same protective qualities as his mother, as well as learning how to go out on patrol.
He defends Marines and sailors with love and tenacity, protecting them as any Marine would protect a brother-in-arms. He is the epitome of man’s best friend, shielding service members from the enemy while providing companionship and camaraderie. His name is Willy Pete, and he’s a warrior, a protector, a friend. He’s also a dog. …
The veteran dog usually takes the lead when the Marines go on patrol now. He stays in front until the Marines pass through the bazaar outside the combat outpost. Local residents often look up in recognition of the dog, who seems to fancy himself a Marine. Willy relocates to a new position once he establishes a clear path for the Marines and begins moving from one side of the patrol to the other, warning Marines of anyone’s approach with a quick bark or a low growl.
The Marine Corps is planning on quickly expanding the War Dog program because of its many successes. In February, Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos said: “I’d like a dog with every patrol”. Bringing more dogs to the battlefield has its limitations, though. Enter a Canadian company by the name of K9 Storm.
K9 Storm has developed canine armor that protects them from knives and bullets, has wireless communication equipment and a night vision camera. They even make an aerial insertion vest designed to support dogs during paratrooping operations. It costs the military $50,000 to train each dog, so it makes sense to keep them protected. We know that the SEAL Team Six raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound included at least one of these war dogs, and this new equipment was likely used.
Despite all the dogs that have faithfully served our military and protected our soldiers on the battlefield, many of whom have been either killed or wounded in action, last year the Pentagon again refused a request by military dog handlers to honor U.S. war dogs with an official medal. What a shame.
Retiring Military Working Dogs are always looking for good homes. Anyone interested in adopting, should check out this website.
Rebecca Frankel of ForeignPolicy.com has done an excellent job catologuing both military dog history and profiling dogs currently serving in our military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Her blog is available here and her fantastic photo essay is available here. Photos courtesy of K9 Storm.
After yesterday’s terrible news coming out of Afghanistan, I sought to find a more positive story surrounding our continued military presence in the Middle East. There will, of course, be renewed calls to bring our soldiers home after this most recent attack. I’d prefer to avoid the political finger-pointing that seems to inevitably follow events like this and instead offer my heartfelt condolences to the families of the soldiers who died yesterday. Their dedication, loyalty and resolve serve as an inspiration to Americans of all stripes and I, for one, will be forever indebted to them for their service to our country. Rest in peace.