Giving war dogs the recognition they deserve


Veterans of three combat tours together, two U.S. Marines ran out of luck when they approached a suspicious-looking man outside an Iraqi police-recruitment center in Ramadi in January.

Marine dog handler Sgt. Adam Cann sensed trouble when Bruno, his bomb-sniffing canine partner, became agitated, signaling the proximity of explosives. In a flash, the suspect detonated the pounds of explosives he’d hidden in his suicide-bomb vest, leaving dozens of dead and injured all around.

Cann, 23, fell fatally wounded as he tried to shield his German shepherd from harm. In the aftermath of the blast, Bruno, his fur bloodied by his own shrapnel wounds, refused to budge and lay on Cann’s chest as if to return the favor. Others in the unit said the pair were as close as brothers, having served one tour together in Afghanistan and two more in Iraq.

Cann, of Davie, Fla., was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and nominated for the Silver Star. But despite his war wounds, exemplary performance and devotion to duty, Bruno _ who is considered to be a bona-fide leatherneck _ will receive no official decoration in honor of his sacrifice and service.

Nor will Flapoor, a Belgian malinois Marine K-9, who was critically wounded when he took a hunk of shrapnel to the liver in the same attack. Nor Chang, a black shepherd that saved his handler’s life in a separate battle by jerking him out of the bull’s-eye just as an enemy sniper fired.

Nor will any other of the hundreds of U.S. war dogs serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom daily put themselves in harm’s way to catch insurgents, uncover hidden bombs, search buildings and otherwise save lives. The canine casualty count now stands at six dead and five wounded.

But because they are what the Air Force and other services categorize as "non-humans," they are ineligible for any official medal _ no matter how extraordinary their contributions or how many lives they save.

An organization devoted to honoring "military working dogs," as the armed services calls them, and their handlers wants to change that.

The U.S. War Dogs Association, a nonprofit group created by former Vietnam War K-9 troops, has launched a drive to convince the Pentagon that, at the very least, dogs serving in combat deserve a medal to show the country’s appreciation for their loyal and courageous conduct in war.

The group is not advocating that Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars or any other current high honor be bestowed on dogs. Instead, the organization has asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to create a new decoration _ the "United States K-9 Military Service Medal" _ to recognize the canines for their combat contributions.

Dogs working side-by-side with U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are "saving lives on a daily basis," Ron Aiello, a Vietnam war-dog handler and president of the association, wrote in a recent letter to Rumsfeld. "In some cases they are also wounded or killed in the line of duty, yet we give them no credit for their service."

Even the American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans organization, has no objection to the creation of a medal for war dogs, said Legion spokeswoman Ramona Joyce.

"We recognize the value of our animals in the line of duty," Joyce said.

The military won’t reveal the total number of K-9s deployed, citing security concerns, but Aiello estimates about 700 have served in the war zones.

Asked about Aiello’s letter, a Pentagon spokeswoman said the no-medal policy is firm. Although K-9s are appreciated for the "invaluable contribution" they make, decorations are reserved for "human personnel," Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke said, via e-mail.

Citing statues at two U.S. bases that honor war dogs, the Defense Department "maintains the most appropriate means to recognize this service is through the use of military memorials," Krenke said.

It wasn’t always thus. In World War I, Stubby, a squat little mixed-bull terrier, earned fame by accompanying soldiers in 17 battles, getting wounded and gassed in the process. He even held a German spy by the seat of his pants until GIs could secure him. Now stuffed and on display at the Smithsonian Institution, Stubby boasts a Purple Heart (awarded posthumously) and eight other medals on his cloth "uniform" cape. He was even made a lifetime member of the American Legion.

In World War II, a mixed-shepherd-collie named Chips was awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart for single-handedly attacking an enemy machine-gun nest in Sicily and, despite a bullet wound, forced the six-man crew to surrender. The Army later revoked the awards, calling it demeaning to service members to give medals to animals.

That policy continues now, although some commanders have presented Bronze Stars or Purple Hearts to dogs for their Iraq and Afghanistan war duty. An Army brigadier general at Fort Gordon, Ga., for instance, pinned a Bronze Star on the collar of Donja, a Belgian malinois, who detected explosives residue in a sport utility vehicle in Afghanistan in 2002. The driver was a suspected terrorist wanted for murder in Pakistan.

While the general violated Army policy and rules, the service isn’t inclined to enforce either, when it comes to such "unofficial" medal awards, Army spokesman Lt. Col. Kevin Arata said. Instead, the Army views these infractions as benign ones that hurt no one but provide a big boost for the soldiers, who are passionate in their devotion to their charges.

"We don’t come looking for violators. We realize that it is good for the morale of the unit," Arata said.

Those serving with war dogs are their greatest advocates, attesting to their unmatched skills at ferreting out hidden munitions and explosives, and finding or deterring bad guys. These troops marvel at the dedication and perseverance the dogs demonstrate, even in the worst of conditions.

"Our dogs are what (make) us a valuable part of this fight on terrorism. Without them, we would just be another cop on the gate or patrol," said Air Force Staff Sgt. Bryan Gudmundson via e-mail from Kuwait, where he is on his fifth tour, this time with Zorro, a malinois.

Many dogs are on their third or fourth combat tours, which each can last six months to a year. Most of those wounded in combat or felled by the heat return to duty.

Besides risking their own safety each time they hunt for explosives or patrol a dangerous street, the canines endure blazing 120-degree heat, hearing damage from close-by explosions, worn-out paw pads, broken teeth, stress diarrhea _ and still give their all to their jobs, say handlers, who are required to provide meticulous care and ample rest to their charges.

"They love to work," said Bill Childress, military dog program manager for the Marine Corps. "They are extremely effective."

There is no official count of how many tons of bombs and other weapons the dogs have found, nor any way to calculate the number of lives saved _ including those of Iraqi forces and civilians _ by the confiscation of lethal items or the disruption of intended suicide and other deadly attacks.

Santo, a Marine shepherd deployed to Fallujah, sniffed out _ among other things, 250 enemy armor-piercing rounds buried more than a foot deep in the Iraqi desert, not to mention 1,000 rounds of other ammunition and 12 rocket-propelled grenades. Rico, an Air Force malinois, is credited by his fellow airmen with catching 26 insurgents in the Kirkuk, Iraq, area.

Air Force handler Gudmundson, 25, says those K-9s and others have earned their nation’s thanks, over and over. Aiello says the 30,000 canines used by the U.S. military since World War I _ including the 4,000 who served in Vietnam, only to be euthanized or abandoned when U.S. forces left _ deserve it, as well.

"These animals work their entire lives as ‘pieces of equipment’ and deserve a lot more credit and recognition than what they get now," wrote Gudmundson, of Vista, Calif.

(Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)