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Canine Trauma

K9 Soldiers Should Take a Bite Out of Bugs

Mary Elizabeth Thurston

Stubby, America’s first war dog, served 18 months on the front in World War I. He saved his regiment from surprise mustard gas attacks, located and comforted the wounded, and even caught a German spy by the seat of his pants. Back home his exploits made the front page of every major newspaper. He was invited to the White House by two different presidents and was personally decorated by General Pershing, who called him a Hero of the highest caliber. Stubby, in fact, was instrumental in inspiring the creation of the U.S. "K9 Corps" just in time for World War II.

John Flannelly should have died in 1969. On predawn patrol in Vietnam, his scout dog Bruiser alerted to danger in a jungle clearing, just in time for Flannelly to kill one of two Viet Cong lying in wait with AK47s and grenades. The other VC got off several rounds, shattering Flannelly’s chest and exposing a lung, yet despite his desperate command to "Get out of here," a wounded Bruiser dragged him 25 yards to a bomb crater, where a helicopter rescued both man and dog.

"My dog was the hero," Flannelly reflects today. "I was just a guy on the other end of the leash." Yet since the 1950s the U.S. government has regarded dogs as equipment rather than soldiers. Biological, yes, but no less exploitable or disposable than any other armament. When illness or infirmity renders them incapable of work, they are euthanized. The military claims the dogs can never enjoy normal lives because their training makes them a danger to the public (although civilian police dogs receiving the same training are retired to family homes without incident). It is a callous policy of convenience that is at odds with the personal experiences of generations of handlers.

With the sanity of even the most hardened soldiers strained to the limit, war dogs have always served in another way: as psychological anchors to peacetime lives the men left behind. Explains former Vietnam handler Tom Mitchell:

We lived with our best friends. He (or she) saved our lives many times. We shared our cookies, cakes and other goodies from home with our best friends. We read them our love letters, and yes, even the ‘Dear Johns.’ We told them what we wanted to do in ‘The World.’ They knew everything about us: When we were sick they would comfort us, and when we were injured they protected us. They didn’t care how much money we had or what color our skin was. Heck, they didn’t even care if we were good soldiers. They loved us unconditionally. And we loved them. Still do.

At the end of the Vietnam War, orders came to leave the dogs behind, to face an uncertain fate in the hands of the Vietnamese, probably as food. For Mike Cagle and other veteran handlers, memories of evacuating via jeep or helicopter while straining for one last glimpse of these canine comrades is almost more than they can bear. "We ate together, slept together, and survived together," Cagle says of his beloved scout dog Heidi. No one will ever convince him that she was a soulless throwaway weapon.

That is why Flannelly, Mitchell, Cagle and hundreds of other veteran handlers, with the support of 40,000 civilians, are petitioning the U.S. postal authorities to issue a commemorative stamp honoring America’s canine comrades in arms.

Despite this amazing groundswell of support, the quest for federal recognition of canine war heroes is going to be an uphill battle. Official disregard for canine contributions to American history has almost become a tradition, as evidenced by our National Museum of American History, which recently underwent a multimillion-dollar overhaul, yet fails to mention the participation of canine recruits in the fight against Germany and Japan, or in any war since. Volumes of war history detail the tactics and strategies of generals ad nauseam without any mention of the role dogs played in battle. How many people know that 50,000 American dogs have served this country over the last half century, cutting human casualties by more than 65 percent wherever they were assigned to the frontline as sentries or scouts? Or that the dogs and handlers who "took point" in Vietnam are credited with preventing at least 10,000 deaths?

Today the Smithsonian considers Stubby "the George Washington of American war dogs," an oddity with no historical merit. His taxidermied body, bedecked in a cloak that sags under the weight of dozens of honorary medals, is in perpetual storage in a packing crate. And the United States is alone among the world’s major powers to refuse official recognition of dogs for their contribution in war-time (Japan has seven monuments).

Mahatma Ghandi believed that "the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." What does our lack of appreciation for the canine soldiers who saved our parents, husbands and sons -- often at the expense of their own lives -- say about us as a nation? After the summer commemorative stamp debut of Bugs Bunny (a viable multimillion-dollar asset to Time Warner), and the pending release of cinema icon Frankenstein (Boris Karloff) and Werewolf (Lon Chaney Jr.) stamps this fall, will postmaster General Marvin Runyon tell Flannelly and his fellow veterans that their experiences are too trivial to commemorate with a stamp?

More to the point in this era of political correctness, will we wipe from our national memory those who fought and died for us -- simply because they were dogs?

This is a somewhat shortened version of an article which appeared in Dog World Magazine (August 1997) titled "Canine War Heroes Deserve Stamp of Approval." Our thanks to Bill Ellis who arranged its reprint here with the permission of both Dog World magazine and the author. Mary Elizabeth Thurston is an anthropologist at the University of Texas and the author of The Lost History of the Canine Race.

How Can We Help?

Bill Ellis

The Vietnam Dog Handler Association (VDHA) is spearheading the drive to create a commemorative stamp honoring the dogs who served in all wars. The VDHA is a registered nonprofit organization (IRS Tax ID # 33-0690480). It publishes a bimonthly newsletter, filled with stories and updates. A national reunion is slated for fall 1998 in San Diego, California. Civilians and the veterans of all wars are invited to join. For more information about VDHA or the Stamp Drive:

Tom Mitchell, President
2126 Ricard Court
El Cajon, CA 92019
(619) 442-1894

Or visit the VDHA Internet home page.

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