Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Lest we forget.

Billy and Cenuway.

If you live at the south edge of Washington Heights, near Broadway, you may have seen Billy walking his dog Cenuway, a very friendly (if sometimes unruly) Pit/Dalmatian mix. Before he adopted Cenuway, Billy had a lovely miniature German Shepherd named Mia, who was, I recently learned, badly mauled by two unsocialized pit bulls running out on the street, offleash and unsupervised--their owner didn't care what they did. Mia was so seriously hurt, she had to be put down. Before we'd made Billy's acquaintance, we used to see him walking her all the time, and wondered what had happened to her. Mia was an exceptionally sweet and intelligent dog, and Billy took a long time to get over that. It can be a hard city for dogs and people alike, sometimes. It's a hard world, and there's no getting around that, much as we might want to change it.

Billy is a veteran of the Vietnam War--he was in an Airborne Division. One day, his C.O. told him he was being transferred to a Recon Unit--he'd never done that kind of work before, but they needed a new man, and he was it.

As he described it to me, he got to where the unit was headquartered, and found these real hillbilly types, fringe jackets, long hair, beards, Appalachian accents, attitude to match. Over time they got to be friendly, but it was a strained relationship at first, as you might imagine.

They pointed out a short-haired German Shepherd Dog, named Caliber--and told Billy he'd be working with the dog. Billy protested he'd had no training to work with a recon dog.

"The dog will train you" was their offhanded response.

And according to Billy, that's exactly what happened--Caliber knew his job, right down to the ground, and by watching him, Billy quickly learned the dangerous work of conducting recon patrols. Dangerous for the men, but even more dangerous for the dogs. Every recon unit had a GSD attached to it, usually of the short-haired variety (better suited to the jungle climate)--their sense of smell and hearing made them able to detect even the most stealthy Viet Cong ambush before it had a chance to be sprung. It also made them ideal for the most dangerous job of all--clearing out the vast network of tunnels the guerillas had dug in the very midst of the U.S. forces, from which they could launch attacks at will. The dogs went down into the tunnels ahead of the men--and many never came out again.

The dogs were so efficient at stopping ambushes before they started, it's actually hard to say how many American lives they saved in the course of the war--10,000 is a conservative estimate. The enemy command began to offer bounties for anyone who killed a military dog or his handler--preferably both.

By the end of the war, there were thousands of dogs stationed in Vietnam, mainly German Shepherds and Labrador Retrievers (the latter were used for tracking). They detected mines and booby traps, worked as sentries, located wounded servicemen. It was the most extensive K9 operation since WWII, and notably different in the way it was conducted. In WWII, we'd used quite a few dogs, but they were mainly people's pets; a motley group of shepherds, collies, terriers, retrievers, mutts, and mixes, volunteered by their owners for the war effort--and most of the pooches that survived the war were retrained for peacetime and sent home.

However, in 1949, there was a little-noticed policy change--military dogs were no longer to be repatriated when their working days were over, no longer sent back to a good home, serving as the subject of heartwarming stories in the press, or movies starring Lassie. They were, for the most part, destroyed. They were treated as worn out equipment, not soldiers (not that human soldiers are always treated so admirably well either).

Billy worked with his recon unit for almost a year, before being reassigned elsewhere. He never saw Caliber again. He doesn't know what happened to him. But he can guess. If Caliber survived to the end of our involvement in that conflict, he would have almost certainly either been euthanized or handed over to the South Vietnamese military. Once Saigon fell, those dogs would have presumably been executed, though one would like to think the North Vietnamese fighters had learned to respect the value and valor of their four-legged adversaries.

The only thing we can be sure of is that nobody ever explained to the dogs why they'd been abandoned, or what they'd been fighting for in the first place. Not that this was a uniquely canine problem with regards to Vietnam.

Only 204 military dogs were brought home, out of what may have been as many as 4,900 sent to Vietnam in the course of the war. The army said that the dogs might be carrying exotic diseases or parasites they could spread to other animals on their return--this was no less true of human personnel, of course, and quarantine would presumably have been a workable alternative--but also an expensive one. The war had been very costly--and we'd lost. For the first time in its history, America had lost a war. People didn't want to think about it. The press paid no attention. The only humans who ever protested the decision were the ones who worked with the dogs, and had seen them as comrades in arms, not equipment. It's an episode in our history that haunts many former military dog handlers to this day.

It wasn't until 2000 that the regulation was changed again, due to congressional oversight and public outcry--military dogs would be repatriated whenever possible, and given the honorable retirement they had earned. But they still suffer trauma, disease, and death, for causes they can never begin to understand. They don't know they have a country. They only know they have a job to do, and people they love and trust to do it for.

Let's hope we're worth it.

Some of the information in this article was taken from Mark Derr's book "A Dog's History of America." You can learn more about military dogs at the website of the United States War Dogs Association, the Vietnam Dog Handler's Association, and the Olive Drab website. There is also a TV documentary called "War Dogs: America's Forgotten Heroes" available on DVD.

No comments: