Remember Heroic Dog-Handler Teams on Memorial Day

Memorial Day is a holiday to remember all the military men and women who died while serving their country.  Americans should observe this holiday by visiting cemeteries and memorials, or gathering with a family of the fallen, instead of attending sales.  This year, American Thinker decided to pay homage to those who are always on the front lines and have saved many American lives: dog handlers and their four-legged partners.

Ever since World War II, military working dogs and their handlers have been an important and worthy part of the war effort.  All interviewed regard this as one of the top five most dangerous combat duties.  The dog team’s job is to be out front and make a safe passage for all those who follow.  In essence, they are both the first line of offense and defense, whose sole duty is to save the lives of America’s finest.  Retired gunnery sergeant Kris Knight noted to American Thinker, “Look at this one statistic: in a fourteen-month period, 160 IEDs were found.  Just think how many of our military lives were saved.”

John Burnam, a Vietnam dog handler and author of Canine Warrior, wants Americans to understand that the dog and handler have always been put in harm’s way in all the wars fought since WWII.  “The enemy knew they were an asset to our military, so they tried to take the dog and the handler out.”  Knight, the former Marine canine course chief, and Marine Gunnery Sergeant Chris Willingham, the current kennelmaster, have similar stories.  They noted that in Iraq and Afghanistan, the enemy put out rewards for killing military working dogs and their handlers because the dogs were very successful at thwarting IEDs.

But Burnam also wants people to understand that the enemy was not the only killer of many military working dogs.  “There was a very dark chapter in our nation’s working dog history.  At the end of 1973, when many handlers were sent home from Vietnam in the haste for our military to depart, they left a huge number of dogs behind by euthanizing them.  The handlers were not even notified and knew nothing about it.  Dogs were also euthanized because many people thought a highly trained military canine would not be able to adjust to civilian life.”  On Memorial Day, we should think about Robby, a Belgian Malinois military dog who was put to sleep even though his handler made every effort to adopt him.  Robby’s Law, passed in 2000, specifies that retired military dogs should be put up for adoption instead of killed.

Congressman Walter Jones (R-N.C.) wanted these teams recognized, and he was the force, along with John Burnam, behind building a U.S. Military Working Dog Teams National Monument (pictured below).  This national memorial, dedicated in 2013, honors the service and sacrifice of working dog teams.  Jones told American Thinker, “Their contribution to our armed services is invaluable.  This is a tribute to the loyalty, service, and sacrifice of these dogs and their handlers.  It was built at Lackland Air Force Base because that is where these teams train.  It is also important to note that the upkeep and construction are paid by private sponsors, not the taxpayers.”

American Thinker asked those interviewed to whom they would like to dedicate Memorial Day.  The congressman wants to dedicate this Memorial Day to Corporal Dustin Jerome Lee, a twenty-year-old U.S. Marine dog handler who died from a rocket-propelled grenade blast in Iraq in 2007.  His partner, Lex, a German Shepherd, was severely wounded.  The Marines allowed Lex to attend Dustin’s funeral.  Because the dog was due for retirement, the Lee family wanted to adopt him, in part to keep Dusty alive in a small way.  Through Congressman Jones’s and John Burnam’s efforts the family eventually was allowed to adopt Lex in 2007. 

Burnam also remembers a brother in arms whom he fought with in Vietnam, Sergeant Edward Cowart Hughes III, a dog handler.  He and his dog, “Sergeant,” were killed during a large force ambush near the Cambodian border in November 1967.  The dog team was assigned to walk point, to be the leaders of a patrol in the jungle.  Although Sergeant, a German Shepherd, alerted the unit, Edward had no time to react.  Burnam commented, “Edward and Sergeant were brought back to the base camp.  We would never leave the dog behind.  We established a military working dog graveyard in Vietnam, which is where Sergeant is buried, while Edward’s body was returned home.”  Edward, as with the dog handlers today, received a Purple Heart, while Sergeant and the dogs today do not get any official recognition.

Chris Willingham remembers his buddy Kory Wiens and his dog Cooper, a yellow Lab.  They were the first dog team killed since Vietnam and are buried together in Oregon.  On July 6, 2007, in Iraq, this team went out on patrol.  As they were searching a building, a large IED was detonated, killing both of them.

Another teammate Chris wants to remember is Max Donahue, who was killed in Afghanistan, while his dog, Fenji, a black Shepherd, was severely injured.  He also wants Americans to remember the dog Grief, who was killed while saving his handler.  Because the bond between handler and dog is so strong, when dogs are killed, they are cremated, and their ashes are given to their human teammates in urns. 

Kris Knight dedicates this Memorial Day to Patrick, a male Belgian Malinois.  He explained to American Thinker that Patrick was a co-conspirator with him.  In 2006, Kris was sent to Israel as part of a team to learn how to handle and communicate with dogs off leash.  He tells the story of how he had a hard time convincing his superiors to use this strategy.  Kris stated, “When the enemy saw the dog and handler, they would remotely detonate a device to kill them both.  My objective was to have every dog work off leash up to one hundred meters.  Patrick was the prototype dog that had good drive and was very civil.  When he and his dog handler were sent to Afghanistan, we continued this type of training.  The dog found an IED and lay down as taught, but was blown up by a pressure plate.  He sacrificed his own life to prove a point.  Patrick was a hero, because he paved the way.  The moral of the story: if this dog did not work off leash, the detonated IED would have also killed his handler.  Basically, Patrick is like the soldier or Marine who jumps on a grenade and sacrifices his own life to save others.  The end-all is that the Marine dog program changed, and dogs are now trained off leash.”

Kris also wants to issue a word of warning.  The Obama administration is closing the Inter-Service Advanced Skills K-9 Course in Yuma.  This is one of the best training programs in the country.  “It is the worst idea I have heard of in my life.  We need this to train the dog team to keep themselves and others alive.  We rely on the dogs to save lives.  We should keep passing on our experience and expertise.  Saving a dollar today will cost lives tomorrow.”

This Memorial Day, Americans should remember the dog teams who are a valuable asset to protect those in the U.S. military in harm’s way.  Everyone should offer their respect to the ones who paid the ultimate sacrifice.  As Congressman Jones stated, “the dog teams are a special gift by G-d to those who wear the U.S. uniform.”

The author writes for American Thinker.  She has done book reviews and author interviews and has written a number of national security, political, and foreign policy articles.