SEMPER FIDOS.....Our K-9 Vets are the best companions our troops could ask for.....I am glad to see they are getting taken care of after their service is done too....
THE DOGS OF WAR
By MAUREEN CALLAHAN
Last Updated: 7:00 AM, February 13, 2011
On Wednesday, Christopher Duke, a man not normally given to introspection, did something unusual: He sat down, by himself, and deliberately and quietly contemplated the moment, exactly one year ago, when he almost died.
Duke, now 28, was a sergeant in the Army, stationed in "the middle of nowhere" in Afghanistan. At about 9:30 on the night of Feb. 9, 2010, he was hanging out in the hallway of his barracks, not far from a couple of soldiers sitting in the front room, near the entryway, working on their laptops.
Then there was an explosion, and then chaos, and then the nearby Special Forces unit rushed in to treat the wounded, and Duke -- who took shrapnel to almost his entire left side -- was one of several medevaced out.
While in transport and recovery, Duke thought often about his friend Rufus -- Rufus, who helped save him, who blocked that suicide bomber from ever getting through the door, who now had gaping wounds, mainly to his back, and who might not make it.
Rufus has never received a medal for his valor, but he's a war hero. He's Duke's best friend.
He's also a dog.
"It surprised me," Duke said, that the Special Forces on the scene treated Rufus -- along with two other dogs who helped intercept that bomber -- with the same focus and intensity as they did the wounded soldiers.
"I didn't expect that," said Duke, himself one of an increasing number of soldiers who have, successfully and without the military's help, brought their animals home to the States, to live with them and their families.
"I thought," Duke said, "that the Special Forces would think, 'The dogs are wounded,' and shoot them."
Instead, they got right on the phone to a veterinarian, who talked them through canine triage. That Special Forces unit, it turned out, had a dog of its own.
THERE'S no VA plan, no memorial on The Mall nor a national holiday, but dogs have been part of US military combat since World War II. Back then, the Department of War, realizing that canines could be a unique asset in the field, had only 50 Army dogs, in Alaska -- and those were sled dogs.
So the department asked civilians, already doing so much for the war effort, to donate their dogs to the military (an unthinkable act today). About 30,000 canines were enlisted, and of those, about 10,000 were used in combat -- ferrying secret messages, carrying ammunition, sniffing out explosives. At the end of the war, the survivors were returned to their owners.
What's happening today, however, is remarkable, a phenomenon specific to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where about one-third of the military's 3,000 military working dogs (MWDs) are deployed.
In defiance of military orders, soldiers are adopting wild strays -- both nations are overrun with canines, which are regarded as working animals at best -- and treating them as dogs are treated in the States, as companions.
Many of these animals are weak and malnourished, wild and feral, having never been domesticated, and there's always a risk they're carrying disease -- the military's top concern, along with inadvertently giving away location. But that somehow is rarely considered.
It would seem these soldiers are saving the dogs. Veterans of these wars, however, say it's the dogs who are saving them.
"It was the kind of thing where I didn't want to get involved with the dog, but the dog involved himself with me," said Jay Kopelman, 51, who served in two tours in Iraq and recently retired as a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps.
"I wouldn't call my dog a hero, though," said Kopelman, who is averse to sentimentality. "I'd call him a pain in the ass."
Today they are happily living together in Southern California, with Kopelman's wife and family.
Kopelman first encountered his dog, Lava, when he was assigned to link up an Iraqi battalion with some Marines in Fallujah. Upon arriving at the base, he noticed young soldiers playing with what looked like a young Shepherd/Husky mix.
"I had never seen that before," he said -- not the breed of dog, but soldiers, on a base, in theater, bonding with a puppy. "They just kept taking care of it."
The Marines adopted the puppy after a firefight, one soldier dropping himself into an otherwise empty 55-gallon drum and emerging with a shaken and traumatized puppy. Their commanding officer, who Kopelman described as "a great leader," looked the other way, as most COs do. Some do not.
"There are a few
a--holes, like everywhere, who will follow the rules to the letter of the law and say 'you have to put the dog down,' or they'll do it themselves. Kill it."
Kicking a dog off a base isn't any easier on the soldiers, Kopelman said: "That's as good as putting a bullet through its head."
As with other military personnel who spoke with The Post, Kopelman found great comfort in taking care of the dog, anticipating his needs, sharing what little food was around. He put a box next to his bed, and Lava began sleeping in it.
One morning, he woke up to find the puppy curled up against him in his sleeping bag, and that was it. His fellow Marines recognized that Lava belonged to Kopelman.
(In 2006, Kopelman published "From Baghdad, with Love: A Marine, the War, and a Dog Named Lava," which was selected as one of Amazon's Top 50 books of that year.)
"Coming home and feeding the dogs -- it's better than a CARE package or a phone call," said Kopelman. "It gives you something to look forward to, to care about something other than yourself -- and also, what could be more reminiscent of home than having a dog around?"
There have been no reported studies on the therapeutic benefits of companion animals in war, but those who have bonded with dogs in combat zones say the effects are enormous and profound. And hard to articulate.
"There were times, for me personally, when I had stuff going on at home and I didn't want to talk about it, or couldn't," said Duke. "So I'd go outside and play with the dogs, and my day would do a complete 180."
"I was a Marine scout dog handler in Vietnam," said Ron Aiello, who runs the Web site USWarDogs.org. He served with Stormy, a German Shepherd, in 1966-67. Aiello grew so attached that he tried to extend his tour of duty -- as did many other handlers -- instead of going home.
He was denied, and spent years trying to learn what happened to Stormy.
"We were always told, by the end of the war, that the dogs were coming home," Aiello said.
But he got "a bad feeling" after he sent two letters of inquiry to Marine Corps headquarters in 1973 as the United States was pulling out of Vietnam, and got no response. The order to either execute the dogs or turn them over to the South Vietnamese had been signed in 1966.
"I think if I had gone over to Vietnam as an infantry grunt, rather than a handler, I would have come back a different person," he said. "Everyone in my unit, to this day, misses their dog."
THESE wars have exac ted an unprecedented human toll -- in 2008, for the first time, suicides in the Army and Marines surpassed the civilian rate. Between 20 and 30 percent of veterans suffer from PTSD and/or clinical depression. Traumatized vets are being treated with pharmaceutical cocktails, divorcing at higher rates than the general population, self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.
Meanwhile, little is being done by the military to work with what does, at least anecdotally, seem to work: Dogs on base, and those dogs relocated to the United States to be with returning soldiers.
Kopelman got his dog out of Iraq with the help of military contractors, who smuggled Lava into the States on a flight with their own military dogs. "I don't know how they did it," he said. "This little 5-month-old stray in with $30,000 dogs. He didn't look like any of them."
Duke got Rufus home through the efforts of Anna Marie Cannan, a 24-year-old woman from northern Maine whose fiancée has also served in Afghanistan, succeeding Duke at his outpost.
He, too, began bonding with strays -- he called it "falling in love" -- so Cannan founded Puppy Rescue Mission, to help reunite returning military personnel with the animals from their war zones.
"These dogs are going through things with these soldiers that we can never understand," Cannan said. "It's hugely therapeutic, for both of them."
So far, she's successfully retrieved 37 dogs.
When he got the call that Rufus was coming home, Duke remained skeptical. In truth, he was too afraid to get his hopes up. Duke spent the morning of Rufus' arrival, July 27, 2010, getting ready for their reunion at Georgia's DeKalb-Peachtree Airport.
"I was running around to get my hair cut and make sure my uniform was in order," Duke said. "It was kind of like getting ready for prom."
The Georgia National Guard had asked Duke to wear his uniform -- "I guess they figured it'd be good press" -- but Duke had long before decided to do that, for Rufus.
"I knew he'd be pretty stressed, and I knew it would be something he'd recognize," Duke said. "It was to comfort him."