By MARIA GOODAVAGE
March 1, 2012
Legislation introduced this week would finally take U.S. military working dogs (MWDs) out of the category of “equipment” and make them bona fide “Canine Members of the Armed Forces.” If it passes, these loyal four-legged heroes who risk their lives for the safety of our troops would at last be officially recognized as the intrepid warriors and lifesavers they have been for war after war.
“It is time that we as a nation recognize the importance and contributions of Military Working Dogs, and this can be done by elevating their status to Canine Members of the Armed Force,” said Representative Walter B. Jones (R-NC), who introduced the Canine Members of the Armed Forces Act with Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). “These dogs are a crucial asset to the US Armed Forces and have saved countless American lives during the past decade of conflict.”
When soldier dogs and handlers deploy, they spend almost every hour together. In fact, they barely leave each other’s sides. Handlers can end up developing a closer bond than they have with other people, even spouses. When they have to part in order to fulfill a unit requirement, it can bring a handler to tears.
I’ve never seen any soldiers cry when they talk about turning in their old rifles or giving back body armor. The fact that dogs are still considered equipment is terribly behind the times. Sure, they’re not human soldiers, but they’re a far cry from a rifle or a helmet or a helicopter. Ask any child who watches Sesame Street which of these things does not belong, and they the kid will point right to the dog. Most military dog program instructors and trainers will, too.
Does it look like Marine handler Sgt. AJ Neito considers his dog Lucy as equipment? Here they wake up close together after a rest from 20 hours of firefight with the Taliban. (Photo courtesy of EOD tech, Sgt. Rosendo Mesa, right)
“I try to articulate that a 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, who’s in charge of advising more than 100 dog teams. “Your dog is your partner, and values meaningful interaction. You just don’t think about equipment in the same way.”
According to Blumenthal’s office, the legislation would assist military working dogs in three main ways. (The italicized text is from a press release from the senator’s office. The nonitalicized text that follows each benefit is my own commentary, based on my knowledge of the topic because of the research for my book, Soldier Dogs: The Untold Story of America’s Canine Heroes, which comes out March 15.)
Improved Adoption Process. To standardize practices regarding the transfer of retired MWDs, those without suitable adoption options at the time of their retirement could be transferred to the 341st Training Squadron at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. These dogs could travel to the base by commercial air by using donated travel benefits also used to facilitate the travel of our service members.
As it stands now, military dogs who are retired overseas in nondeployment areas (such as Germany) remain at kennels there until they’re adopted. If someone in the U.S. wants to adopt a dog, the adopter has to pay the cost of the flight — not cheap. This legislation would apparently cost taxpayers nothing, and would bring these dogs back to Lackland, where most military dog adoptions already take place. It would also provide for the transportation to Lackland of any retired dogs who may be languishing at other military facilities in the U.S. This would probably initially cause some headaches there, but I’m confident the staff could make it work.
Veterinary Care for Retired Dogs. The bill directs the Secretary of Defense to award a contract to a private nonprofit entity that would establish a system of veterinary care for retired MWDs. No federal funds would be used to provide this veterinary care.
Currently when people adopt military dogs, they also adopt all the veterinary bills the dog will incur. But many of these dogs have a lot of mileage, and expenses can be prohibitive. This part of the bill seems like it will create a sort of canine Veterans Administration, only without the government running it or funding it.
Recognition for Service. The legislation would empower the Department of Defense to honor courageous or meritorious dogs, or those killed in action, through appropriate recognition such as a letter of commendation.
Dogs in the military are not officially awarded ribbons or medals or letters from the Department of Defense. America’s canine heroes can save all the lives in their squads and get injured in the process, but will not receive true official recognition.
When you hear about dogs receiving awards and decorations, it’s usually because someone higher up at a command knows how valuable these dogs are, and wants to reward their valor, their heroism, their steadfast dedication to their mission. And the dogs get the awards, but the awards don’t have the blessing of the Department of Defense.
One former Army handler I spoke with says he has seen dogs get all kinds of honors, including Meritorious Service Medals and Army Commendation Medals. Some dogs have also received Purple Hearts and Silver Stars. The ceremonies look official. But these are simply “feel-good honors,” says Ron Aiello, president of the national nonprofit U.S. War Dogs Association. His group has been trying to get these benefits for dogs for more than a decade.
Of course, you could ask: What good are medals and ribbons for dogs? Do they even care? And the answer would be that no, they probably don’t grasp the significance. What’s another thing around their neck, or a framed certificate on a wall? A dog would probably just rather get a treat or a Kong, or better yet, a belly rub.
The honors we bestow on canine heroes are really more for those who love them and live by them, those who have been saved by them. And who can say? Maybe the benefits of this go down the leash to the dog, and the dog and handler will perform even better together.
Air Force Staff Sergeant Brent Olson received a Purple Heart and an Army commendation medal for what happened the day he and his dog Blek were involved in an explosion in Afghanistan. Blek received nothing. At a ceremony where Olson was awarded another medal, he wanted Blek to receive his due recognition. He leaned over and pinned his own Purple Heart to Blek’s harness. This legislation would make medals/ribbons/recognition for dogs officially sanctioned. (Photo: Brent Olson)
I realize we shouldn’t get our hopes up yet about this legislation, since it has only just been introduced, not passed. There may be many roadblocks en route to its passage. But I think something will come of this, whether it’s the whole package or just parts of it, and this can be built upon and improved. I hope that the legislation will also take into account contract working dogs (CWDs), who are also phenomenal canine heroes protecting lives in these war zones, but I think this will have to be another piece of legislation.
If you want to help the Canine Members of the Armed Forces Act pass, let your senator or representative know you support it. Here’s a list of contact information for U.S. senators, which you can sort by state. And here’s a page that provides contact info for your congressperson in the U.S. House of Representatives. Update: Here are the legislative IDs for the legislation. They’re handy to mention these in your correspondence. House: H.R.4103. Senate: S.2134.
What do you think? Is it about time for this kind of legislation? Or should dogs still be officially considered equipment that, albeit very beautiful equipment? I’ve heard that some people are not happy about this legislation, and I will probably find out the reasons soon, but I’m also interested in hearing from you if you’re against it. Are you going to take action either way? Leave a comment and let us know!