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Canine Trauma

Always In Front of Me

Mary Elizabeth Thurston

Today's war dogs are drafted for life. As the dogs age, they are returned to Lackland Air Base in San Antonio, Texas, where they continue to serve their country as practice dogs for new handlers. The military claims the dogs can never be released into civilian society, yet civilian police dogs receiving identical training are routinely retired to live their remaining years in nurturing family environments. In labeling the canine soldiers as "equipment," the military appears blind to their true value to the handlers who serve with them on the front line. For the attachment or feeling of love that develops between a dog and human who have fought together to stay alive runs deep and is never forgotten.

Staff Sergeant Christopher Batta and an explosives-detecting Belgian Malinois named Carlo are just the latest in a long line of human-dog bonds that defy military policy. In a sixty-day tour in Desert Storm, Carlo alerted to 167 concealed explosives, discovered a cache of bombs hidden under a case of MREs, detonation cord, and cluster bombs buried in neighborhoods where children played. In 1991, in a formal ceremony reported by Stars and Stripes, Batta received the Bronze Star for his service in the Persian Gulf. But the Sergeant found the military regulation barring animals from receiving honors unfair. After the ceremony, he removed the medal from his own uniform and affixed it to the dog's collar.

"Carlo worked harder than me," Batta explained. "He was always in front of me."

Copyright 1997 by the author. Mary Elizabeth Thurston is an anthropologist at the University of Texas and the author of The Lost History of the Canine Race.

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