Dogs of war gaining recognition |

Dogs of war gaining recognition

Jonathan Abrams
Los Angeles Times
Vail, CO Colorado
Irfan Khan/Los Angeles TimesMarine Sgt. Mike McKelroy, who served as a dog handler in Vietnam for 18 months, checks out the sculpture at the West Coast War Dog Memorial at March Field Air Museum in Riverside, Calif.

The small group of veterans gathers at March Field Air Museum in Riverside, Calif., once a year, traveling from all corners of the country, to mourn forgotten heroes of battle.

They come to honor the dogs that saved lives by detecting booby traps and watching over military camps, dogs that became trusted friends in times of loneliness.

The meeting point is the 16-foot-tall West Coast War Dog Memorial, which holds a bronze statue of a soldier and his German shepherd.

For years, veterans have sought to have the contributions of war dogs recognized with a national monument.

The West Coast memorial, designed by Denver-area sculptor A. Thomas Schomberg, was to have been placed at Riverside National Cemetery, but a national Veterans Affairs advisory committee argued that doing so would be disrespectful. The museum agreed to take it, and the veterans to meet there every year on the Sunday before Memorial Day.

“It honors another aspect of the military that is forgotten,” said Patricia Korzec, the museum’s executive director. “Man’s best friend truly turned out to be man’s best friend on the battlefield.”

The tribute could not come sooner for many war dog handlers, most of whom were forced to leave their dogs behind when they returned to the United States after World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

John Burnam, a Vietnam veteran who spent countless days with his German shepherd, Clipper, credits the dog with saving his life several times.

Once while on combat patrol, Clipper stopped, his muscles tensed and ears perked toward the sky. Burnam, who always followed the dog’s lead, ducked to the ground. Machine gun fire erupted, killing a soldier in front of them.

Burnam said he and Clipper played dead for 10 minutes before help arrived.

If not for Clipper, Burnam said, he has no doubt that he would have died. “We were basically leading combat patrols, and the dogs, with their natural abilities, were leading us.”

Burnam now travels the country, advocating for a national war dog monument. He and others proposed generating the $3 million needed for the monument through fundraisers

“We aren’t equating them to humans, but we are saying . . . there are families that have grandkids as a result of these dogs being deployed,” said Burnam, author of “Dog Tags of Courage: Combat Infantrymen and War Dog Heroes in Vietnam.”

The Vietnam Dog Handler Association estimates that dogs saved 10,000 soldiers’ lives during the Vietnam War. They would alert handlers to tripwires blowing in the breeze or the otherwise undetectable scent of buried explosives.

Depending on their level of aggressiveness, the dogs were sent to two camps to hone their skills before deployment. Scout dogs were trained at For t Benning, Ga., and sentry dogs at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, still one of the country’s largest dog training facilities.

The scout dogs learned to alert handlers to foreign scents and sniff out land mines, snipers, enemy sentries and patrol camps.

Sentry dogs learned to stand guard and protect bases, airfields, ammunition dumps and fuel dumps.

The federal government, fearing that such dogs could not be rehabilitated after the war, classified them as equipment. They were euthanized at the end of battle, much to the dismay of their handlers.

Of the estimated 4,000 dogs used in the Vietnam War, only about 200 returned to the United States.

In 2000, legislation that allowed handlers to adopt war dogs and bring them home was signed by President Clinton.

Today, canine corps are deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq and are used to secure bases and guard prisoners. Some of those dogs wear backpacks equipped with radios and are given radio commands from soldiers in protected areas.

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