Sunday, December 5, 2010

K-9 Heroes in Iraq & Afghanistan receive thanks from home via care packages from New Jersey

U.S. soldier Jason Phillips, with Duco, a military war dog, on patrol in Afghanistan.

All I can say is that if you have to be out there in the shite-wilds of Afghanistan, you would find yourself very very lucky to have a K-9 companion as they have been proven to be 98% effective in detecting IEDs and other dangers.......God Bless our K-9 Veterans....They have proven their worth over & over again.

Canine heroes receive thanks

Valentine Cholminski and Tony Sigismondi are making care packages at the American Legion Post 227. "Dog biscuits! This is a first!" said Tony Sigismondi as he and fellow veterans from American Legion Post 227 in Totowa prepared to ship the biscuits and other dog treats and supplies overseas. "It was very unusual. Nobody ever thinks of the dogs, it's always the humans."

Seven hundred military dogs currently are serving side-by-side with American soldiers in the Middle East, said Ron Aiello, president of the U.S. War Dogs Association, based in Burlington.

In Iraq, the dogs are stationed at checkpoints and border crossings to sniff out explosives and drugs. Their duties have been expanded to include leading patrols and searching buildings for booby traps. In Afghanistan, the dogs also are used in mine-clearing operations.

"A lot of people still don't know dogs are used in the military," said Aiello, 66, who served as a Marine dog handler in Vietnam.

The decision to send care packages to military dogs in Afghanistan and Iraq was the brainchild of Christopher Hamlett, a shy 13-year-old from Mountainside whose mother, Michelle, is a history teacher at Eastside High School in Paterson.

Christopher said he was inspired by stories his mother told him about his grandfather, Stanley Hamlett, who was a military policeman and dog handler in Vietnam.

For the past three years, students at Eastside have been sending care packages to soldiers in the Middle East. Christopher wanted to get involved as part of a social studies project. If soldiers welcomed care packages from home, he reasoned, surely military dogs would, too.

"He was so touched by these dogs," Michelle Hamlett said. "The thought of dogs, basically, being trained to lose their lives broke his heart."

Christopher talked to veterans, and distributed about 1,000 fliers throughout Mountainside and Eastside High. The students and residents responded with donations.

"It got to the point where I had car loads — nine boxes — that I was taking to Eastside," Michelle Hamlett said.

"It's the right thing to do," Christopher, an eighth-grade student at Mountainside's Deerfield School, said of the project.

There was one problem. Eastside could not afford the postage.

"It would be way too expensive for us," Michelle Hamlett said.

Gloria Van Houten, an Eastside teacher who helped direct the project, turned to Post 227, and the veterans came through.

"It [postage] cost about $40 a box," Sigismondi said. He said the post collected money at fund-raising events to cover the cost of sending the boxes to the war zones.

In addition to $500 worth of dog biscuits and dog treats, Sigismondi, 79, a Korean War veteran, said his post also sent items traditionally requested by troops, such as toiletries.

The canine packages, which included flea and tick collars, squeaky toys, dog treats and puppy paw wipes, were sent last week with a goal of getting them to the war zones in time for Thanksgiving.

Aiello, of the U.S. War Dogs Association, served with the Marines' first scout-dog platoon in 1966 in Vietnam, where eventually as many as 5,000 dogs were deployed for scout, guard and tracking duty.

"Our job was to lead patrols, day and night," Aiello said. His dog, Stormy, a German shepherd, used the smell in the air to detect danger.

"We worked with the wind," Aiello said. "If there was an ambush ahead or a sniper in a tree, or a booby trap down a trail, Stormy would stop and kneel, and I would say, 'What do you see girl?' And I would report a possible enemy ambush at 11 o'clock in that tree line."

A dog's nose is "10 times stronger than a human's," Aiello said. "An analogy is that we smell spaghetti. A dog can smell the sauce, the tomatoes, the pepper, the oregano."

When U.S. troops pulled out of Vietnam, some of the dogs were turned over to the South Vietnamese Army. Others were euthanized.

"At the end of the war, there were 3,000 dogs left," Aiello said. "We gave 1,700 to the South Vietnam military; the rest were euthanized. We didn't like that."

Aiello said he doesn't know what happened to Stormy.

After Vietnam, the war dog program was disbanded, only to be started again after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Military dogs are no longer euthanized when their tours are done. They are retired or put up for adoption, Aiello said.

The most common breed deployed to the Middle East is the Belgian shepherd, also known as Malinois, Aiello said. Most are trained at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.

Aiello said it is not unusual for dog handlers stationed in remote parts of Afghanistan to ask for basic items such as feeding bowls, dog shampoo and rope chews. His association also sends leashes and dog harnesses, equipment the handlers cannot readily purchase in a war zone.

"We try to give them a little bit of home," Aiello said. "It keeps their morale up."


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