Honoring Canine Heroes
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I always worried about them but I know they died over there and they died as heroes.
The Military Working Dogs Team National Monument
Working dogs have been used in the military since ancient times, dating back to the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Persians, and the Romans, according to the Armed Forces History Museum. Chips, a German Shepherd-Collie-Siberian Husky mix, was the most highly decorated military war dog (MWD) in World War II, assigned to Private John Rowell, serving with the 3rd Infantry Division in North Africa, Italy, and France. During the invasion of Sicily, Chips and Private Rowell were trapped on a beach by a team of Italian machine gunners; Chips broke loose, jumped into the pillbox and attacked the gunners, forcing the four men to evacuate and surrender to US troops, as Chips sustained a scalp wound and powder burns. Chips captured ten more Italians. Chips' service throughout the war earned him a Distinguished Service Cross, a Silver Star, and a Purple Heart, but they were rescinded due to Army policy, preventing animals from receiving official commendations. However, Chips unit unofficially awarded him the Theater Ribbon with Arrowhead for an assault landing and eight Battlestars, each representing the campaigns he participated in.
As Maria Goodavage accounts in her book, Soldier Dogs: The Untold Story of America's Canine Heroes, "Dogs in the military are not officially awarded ribbons or medals from the Department of Defense." Any honors are unofficial, where Ron Aiello, President of United States War Dogs Association, a nonprofit which helps soldier dogs and their handlers, has been attempting to give official recognition to MWDs; the Department of Defense (DOD) is uninterested. Knowing how much it would mean for handlers to have that recognition for their MWDs, the organization created the United States Military Working Dog Service Award, which can be given to any dog who has actively participated in combat. The award is a large, bronze-colored medal on a red, white, and blue ribbon, which is accompanied with a personalized certificate; as of the writing of Soldier Dogs, 80 medals have been awarded.
Goodavage recounts Air Force Staff Sergeant Brent Olson and his canine partner, Blek H199, a black German Shepherd. Sergeant Olson was awarded a Purple Heart and an Army Commendation Medal for his actions in Afghanistan. Blek was injured in Afghanistan, and received nothing. Blek had run when an improvised explosive device (IED) exploded; as Sergeant was checking Blek for injuries, his right arm went numb; Olson had been hit. Olson had also realized Belk had gone deaf, as Blek would stare straight ahead while Olson was talking to him; Blek's eardrums had been blown, and also had a piece of shrapnel imbedded in the left side of his muzzle. Initially, the Black Hawk crew member wouldn't allow Blek to go. Sergeant Olson's response: "He has to go. If he doesn't go, I'm not going! There's no way I'm leaving my dog!" Sergeant Olson and Blek went on the Black Hawk to Kandahar.
As Olson observes, "Dogs are soldiers, too. They give up their whole lives for this' Not to be recognized officially is a slap in the face." Sergeant Olson was awarded another medal and wanted Blek to receive his earned recognition; Sergeant Olsen leaned over and pinned his own Purple Heart to Blek's harness. Blek could no longer work due to his injury, and Sergeant Olson "jumped at the chance to adopt him. As a handler, he got first dibs."
Marine Sergeant Mark Vierig had worked with a dual-purpose Belgian Malinois, Duc B016 (Duck), in Afghanistan, Iraq (twice), even Thailand. In 2006, Sergeant Vierig was able to adopt Duc, living in the mountains of Utah, next to the Weber River. A year after his new life, Duc went outside and collapsed; Sergeant Vierig scooped Duc up and took him to his special "Duc Room," comforting him. Duk had "howled like a wolf, a plaintive cry Vierig had never heard before. Duc took one last breath and died in Vierig's arms." Vierig laid a brand-new 4-by-6 foot Marine Corps flag over Duc, making his grave near the river. Duc was laid in the ground under a big tree with lots of shade. On the tree, Vierig attached Duc's old military kennel sign which had his name on it; to the sign, Vierig attached all of Duc's thirteen medals and ribbons (which were actually Vierig's, earned with Duc). Vierig has since moved, but visits Duc, replacing the ribbons when they have worn.
According to Goodavage, the military deemed the dogs too dangerous to return home (sentry dogs had been trained to be vicious), yet sentry dogs were only one type of dog during the war, which included scout and tracker dogs. According to the John Burnam Memorial Foundation, MWDs were often trained as scout dogs in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, detecting ambushes, weapon caches, and enemies hiding under water. An estimated 5,000 dogs served during the Vietnam War, along with the 10,000 US service members who were the dog handlers. Unfortunately, MWDs were often left behind in Vietnam, according to John C. Burnam, Vietnam Scout Dog Handler, who received the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart, President of the John Burnam Monument Foundation, and author of Dog Tags of Courage: Combat Infantrymen and War Dog Heroes in Vietnam, accounting his time with the Army's 44th Scout Dog Platoon in 1967-68 with Clipper, a German Shepherd. "Back then, handlers were not able to adopt their dogs when they were retired," as Burnam accounts, "I always worried about them but I know they died over there and they died as heroes." Goodavage continues, approximately 200 dogs would ever return home.
Although MWDs are not recognized with official awards, they are remembered by a national monument. On October 28, 2013, The Military Working Dog Teams National Monument, the first to honor every MWD who served in combat since World War II, was unveiled at the Lackland Air Force Base, in San Antonio, Texas. It was "incredible, more than I expected," recalls Burnam. He knew once the monument was unveiled, people "would love it and what it expresses." It was in 2004 when Burnam pursued the idea to create a national monument to honor MWDs, but the initial stages for the national monument began in 1991, when he reunited with a friend who was wounded during deployment on May 6, 1966, transported away in a helicopter; that was the last day Burnam saw his comrade until 1991.
After seeing his friend, Burnam decided to write the stories of their experiences in Vietnam, stories which also included his time as a MWD handler. As veterans face unimaginable sights and experiences, each veteran has an individual way of dealing with those experiences; for Burnam, telling stories was the way for him to heal. Burnam meticulously compiled the stories he wanted to tell during 1991-2000, where Dog Tags of Courage: Combat Infantrymen and War Dog Heroes in Vietnam, was published in 2001. People were beginning to take an interest, wanting to learn about war dogs. Frequently, during his book signings, or when he was telling these stories, the question, "Why isn't there a monument honoring war dogs?" was posed.
Burnam began to reflect, wanting to do something special for Clipper, his second partner (and his breed), and all the courageous war dogs working in all our wars. Burnam credits Timber (his first partner) and all the other war dogs as the inspiration for the monument, but personally, it was Clipper who inspired him, as Clipper was the partner Burnam saw combat with, as "my partner, my buddy," through their inseparable bond. Holding back emotion, Burnam reflects the heartbreak he felt, and the difficult position he was in, when he had to leave Clipper behind in Vietnam, describing, "Clipper was left, standing there, not knowing I wasn't coming back."
As Burnam accounts, Timber was the first dog he was partnered with in Vietnam during his second tour. Timber, whom Burnam affectionately compares as "a grumpy, old Sergeant," was a very intelligent, high-strung, and aggressive German Shepherd who wanted to bite. However, once Timber was able to run around, he was happy once he was moving, as he climbed ladders and jumped out of windows, running through the obstacle course, training for the things he would be experiencing in the field.
Although Burnam had never been on this type of mission with a dog, he was comfortable with Timber. The team was travelling with their infantry, heading out of the base camp into the thick jungle. Soon, the radio indicated enemy contact had been made, and the carrier began chasing the enemy, who staged an "L-shape" ambush. The front end of the carrier stopped suddenly as the cabin filled with smoke, and firing began; the enemy was hitting the carrier with rocket-propelled grenades. The driver jumped out, as Burnam dove out with Timber, crawling into the jungle as the carrier exploded, and three carriers were trapped behind. Burnam and Timber were wounded. Many men lost their lives.
Burnam recovered after a day, with scratches and shock, and ventured out of the infirmary to the kennels, but did not see Timber in the run. Timber had sustained a serious wound inside the right flank of his leg, and was not ready to return to duty. Burnam tried to work with Timber, but Timber was frightened, became meek, and was no longer the same dog he was. Burnam took Timber on walks and ran him through the obstacle course, but Timber was not responding. Timber would not be returning to active duty.
Clipper was also highly intelligent, but was the exact opposite of Timber, as Clipper was docile, friendly, and wanted to be petted, whom Burnam bonded with on their first encounter. To Burnam, Clipper was a "very capable soldier," as the two became a formidable team, once they adapted to one another, as Burnam learned Clipper's strengths, what he liked and did not like, and Clipper began to trust Burnam and his commands. Clipper responded well, transitioning to hand signals, "you can't yell during a fire fight."
The team would patrol together, neither of which were ever wounded, as Clipper saved Burnam's life and the lives of others by alerting them to snipers, ambushes, and booby traps. Clipper was good under fire, amidst the loud noises from gun fire, with a speed of responsiveness, taking commands. When Burnam and Clipper were trapped on the front line of combat, Clipper would lay down and stay quiet, so that neither he nor Burnam would be shot from either side. To Burnam, you know you have a special animal if he/she is able to take that command, understanding the importance of staying quiet.
In tribute to Clipper, Timber, the platoon of the war dogs and their handlers of the 44th Scout Dog Platoon, and all war dogs, Burnam expressed, "I wanted to give something back to these animals that have done so much and asked for so little, except for food, and water and the love of their handlers." Burnam transitioned his passion into ambition, discovering a path to create a national monument, the first one in the history of our nation, dedicated to all MWDs, serving from World War II to the present.
Under the Commemorative Works Act of 1986, which stipulates the procedures and policies in what is required to create a national monument, the event or individual "cannot be memorialized prior to the 25th anniversary of the event or the death of the individual." Burnam designed the monument, wanting to include all the dogs who served, but were not recognized, as well as war dogs who served in World War I. However, as many as 20 breeds were serving as messengers, ammunition carriers, search and rescue, first aid, among a myriad of jobs; one breed including the German Shepherd, most commonly used during World War II to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The German Shepherd is a primary breed of the military, as they are intelligent, of a large size, with a nice coat, helping the dog to blend in to the surroundings and operating in a myriad of climates. The German Shepherds were easy to train and able to accept another handler (as the MWD can have several handlers during his/her career). Burnam fondly recalls, as he was sitting before Congress, the body thought the dogs to be merely mascots, as Burnam exclaimed, "No, they're soldiers!" in protecting their handlers, where that respect is reciprocated, as the handler would never leave the dog, with the attitude of "no dog left behind on the battlefield."
The silicon bronze monument features one dog handler dressed in the current date dog handler uniform, and the four primary breeds of war dogs, the Doberman Pincher serving in World War II, the Labrador Retriever serving as a tracker during the Vietnam War, the Belgian Malinois who first served in the Gulf War, and the German Shepherd. The dogs are fanned, wearing no equipment (as it would identify specific wars), standing for their breed, "in regal strength," as if they could walk right off the pedestal. Below, the name of each breed of dog is listed, as well as the war(s) the dog served in (for example, Doberman Pincher, World War II).
Burnam also felt a wall narrative was necessary, describing the war dogs' jobs, in addition to what the veterinarians did (as the health of the war dogs was essential). The back of the wall features photographs of each breed of dog, where Burnam commissioned a national archives researcher to find as many photographs as possible, of the breeds in uniform in "action shots," where approximately 150-200 were found. 23 images were laser-etched on black granite, attached to the grey granite wall. Finally, the five flags representing each branch of the armed services were included.
Burnam also felt a dog water fountain was imperative; it was essential that dogs were allowed access to the monument, where this stipulation was written into the legislation, and passed into law. Burnam also thought it would be an extraordinary experience for MWD handlers to visit the monument, perhaps with their MWD. The Not Forgotten Fountain features a handler resting with his MWD, pouring water from his canteen into a helmet, a design inspired by Burnam's own experiences with Clipper, resting, pouring water into a helmet for Clipper to drink from. Benches are situated around the fountain, so that people could sit and reflect from all angles.
The journey for Burnam has been rewarding, from the inception of his idea, to the immense amount of work that needed to be done in order for the monument to be created (research, presentations, securing sponsorship, working with legislators on Capitol Hill), with the help of volunteers (doing the tasks time did not permit Burnam), to the day of the dedication. Burnam is extremely proud he was able to pay tribute to all the work devoted MWDs have done, but was not recognized for it, but he is more proud of all the people who showed tremendous support along this journey. Burnam also feels the positivity in the public embracing the monument, and the meaning behind it.
To Burnam, MWDs are "working dogs, there to save lives, [who have] seen wars just like their handlers," who should be recognized and respected. Although the journey into creating the monument has required Burnam to "return to the war" by recalling his stories, which is difficult, it does help him deal with the memories of his time during war, as he reflects, "you can serve in war, but [afterwards,] you get up and do something productive, and contribute to people, your friends, your family, your community." Burnam has done so by transforming his passion, his memories of his four-legged partners in war, and his desire, to give military war dogs the respect and recognition they deserve, and have earned. It is the mutual respect between the dog handler and the war dog, which The Military Working Dog Teams National Monument symbolizes, and serves as an everlasting memory.
Keeping Clipper (and all the MWDs who have devoted their lives in protecting our military) in his "heart and mind all these years," Burnam wrote the inscription to the Not Forgotten Fountain, "In everlasting memory of all the heroic war dogs who served, died, and were left behind in the Vietnam War."
Mr. Burnam will be releasing Canine Warrior: How a Vietnam Scout Dog Inspired a National Monument, which features the stories in Dog Tags of Courage (his first book) as well as many additional stories and photos. Several chapters detail the steps to initiate a national monument, get it through the US Congress, and signed into law, and how it was designed, funded, and built. The final chapter speaks to the dedication ceremony of the US Military Working Dog Teams National Monument, accompanied with dozens of photos. The book is scheduled for release in Spring of 2014.
Louisa Lew, Contributing Writer: Louisa Lew graduated from the University of Washington with a Bachelor’s Degree in the Liberal Arts, double majoring in Political Science and Film. She is currently a Freelance Copy Editor and Writer, living in Seattle with her two dogs. (more...)