July 4, 2017 —
On the Fourth of July, as the nation celebrates the birth of American independence with fireworks and waving flags, let’s remember to honor and give thanks to the military heroes who protect our freedoms on the frontlines—and that includes the courageous canines serving our country in combat.
The U.S. military accepted dogs into its official ranks for the first time 75 years ago, in 1942, with the creation of the first-ever “K-9 Corps.” This first class of trailblazing, tail-wagging war dogs rapidly proved invaluable military assets. Specially trained canine messengers and scout dogs, for example, were credited with saving the lives of tens of thousands of U.S. troops during World War II and the Vietnam War.
Over the course of the following decades, the U.S. canine regiment evolved to become what is now an elite four-legged force on the frontlines of the war on terror. Witness the fearless Special Ops canines who today parachute into combat zones, leap out of helicopters to plunge into bodies of water, and rely on high-tech equipment like infrared night-vision eye gear, called “doggles,” that enables them to detect human body heat through concrete walls.
But the most important canine trait in modern warfare is a dog’s extraordinary sense of smell. Explosive-detection canines continue to be our most effective weapon against IEDs—the leading cause of death of American and allied troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Equipped with only technology, the U.S. military locates approximately half of the IEDs planted in Afghanistan and Iraq; however, when patrols use IED-detection dogs, the success rate rises to 80 percent. Lieutenant General Michael L. Oates, former director of the special Pentagon office created to counter the threat of IEDs, once said that even after spending $19 billion on high-tech sensing technology, “dogs are [still] the best detectors.”
Courageous canine warriors today risk their lives—and sometimes lose them—protecting our troops and our freedom in the world’s most dangerous war zones. But the service and sacrifice of these unsung heroes are too often overlooked or forgotten. The U.S. government deserts American military dogs the moment they retire from service, often returning with serious combat-related health issues that linger long after they’ve left the battlefield behind. An estimated five percent of war dogs are diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress. And many more are wounded in action, sustaining serious injuries which, along with the day-to-day wear and tear of war, can result in long-term health complications.
However, the government doesn’t provide veterinary healthcare services or benefits to help these canine veterans. In the absence of federal support, the financial burden of caring for retired military dogs and treating their wounds of war falls squarely on their owners, 90 percent of whom are armed service members or veterans who adopted their former canine counterpart. There are nonprofit groups like American Humane, the country’s first national humane organization, dedicated to help provide veterinary care to retired military dogs, free of charge. But with more than 1,700 military working dogs currently serving in the armed forces—and 300 new canines entering military training school every year—groups like ours can’t do it all on our own.
As the stars and stripes wave on Independence Day, we’re reminded that America can—and must—do more to help protect the heroes, both human and canine, who protect us and the freedoms of our nation. It’s time for the U.S. government to establish a system of specialized veterinary care to ensure that all four-legged veterans receive the quality healthcare and comfortable, pain-free retirements they deserve. After 75 years of selfless service under the flag, our gratitude and support are long overdue.
Dr. Robin Ganzert is president and CEO of American Humane, the country’s first national humane organization.