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Effort underway to honor military dogs

  • Article by: CHRISTENA T. O'BRIEN
  • Associated Press
  • May 31, 2014 - 12:10 AM

EAU CLAIRE, Wis. — The four-footed soldiers who alert human troops to imminent ambushes, detect booby traps and trip wires and track the enemy are often forgotten.

But a committee, which includes military dog handlers, is hoping to honor the thousands of military working dogs that have been called into U.S. service since World War I with a tribute at The Highground, a memorial two miles east of Neillsville dedicated to honoring the service of veterans.

"The story needs to be told," said David Backstrom of Eau Claire, who proposed the tribute after he was deeply touched by the story of a friend's husband, a military dog handler who was killed in June 1967, a little more than two months after arriving in Vietnam.

The soldier was drafted in 1966. When he arrived in Vietnam, he began training with a German shepherd named Satan, a scout dog.

Scout dog teams walked "point," or out front, for units, looking for ambushes, booby trap wires, hidden caches of food or weapons and snipers. When the dog alerted, the handler passed the information to the patrol leader.

"His dog became his best friend," according to a letter from the soldier's late wife, which Backstrom, who served as a medical corpsman, treating Marine and Navy personnel in Vietnam, shared with the Leader-Telegram (http://bit.ly/1pf8XDE).

Before their last mission, Satan became restless, and the unit unexpectedly walked into a large group of enemies, according to the letter.

The soldier was killed, and Satan was shot, but he survived, later returned to active duty and served with two additional handlers before dying of disease in 1969, according to The 39th Scout Dog Platoon website.

More than 30,000 dogs have done everything for the military from carrying messages and first-aid supplies to the front to searching for land mines and tunnels, detecting booby traps and trip wires all but invisible to two-footed soldiers, alerting troops to imminent ambushes, protecting camps and tracking and capturing the enemy, according to the Vietnam Dog Handler Association.

More than 4,000 dogs served in the Vietnam War, where with the Army alone, they racked up more than 88,000 missions in which at least 3,800 enemy soldiers were killed and 1,200 captured, according to the VDHA. They also were credited with saving a lot of American lives.

"These dogs were your eyes, your ears and your nose," said Michael Olson of Holmen, who enlisted in the U.S. Army and served as a sentry dog handler in Vietnam.

Working a sentry dog post, Olson and Printz 10X8, a 7-year-old German shepherd already with two one-year tours under his collar, guarded the perimeter of a base camp in Cam Rahn Bay, meaning they walked along the edge of the jungle with Olson watching the shepherd's every movement for their six-hour shifts.

"As a handler, you (needed) to learn his 'alerts,' " said Olson, referring to the cues the big dog would give him when he sensed something that should not be there.

"Although some dogs alert differently, Printz would bring his ears up, his body would go rigid, and his concentration was focused on whatever sound, sight or smell he sensed."

"These dogs were very much a part of your life," said Olson, who has never forgotten Printz. (The pair were separated after four months of working together. Olson was assigned to work as a veterinary technician, and Printz was assigned a new handler.) "They were your best friend, and there was a bond there that can't be described."

Of the military dogs used in Vietnam, only 204 exited the country during the 10-year period, according to the U.S. War Dog Association. Some were returned to the U.S., and some remained in the Pacific. Others were turned over to the South Vietnamese Army, but most were euthanized — something that doesn't sit well with many who served with the four-footed soldiers.

"Your dog is not a vehicle, not a piece of steel that fires bullets; he is part of you," said Olson, who believes dogs like Printz deserve a memorial at The Highground.

The committee, on which both Backstrom and Olson serve, is planning a life-size bronze sculpture of a Vietnam-era soldier and a German shepherd. (Other breeds also have been used for military service, including Labrador retrievers, often used as trackers.) Members are currently interviewing sculptors.

"We want to show the bond between a dog and its handler," said John Myers of Eau Claire, another Vietnam veteran serving on the committee. "It's different than that between a person and his pet. In war, (handlers) have to depend on their dogs for their lives."

In addition to the sculpture, Myers — who saw the scout dogs in action in Vietnam — envisions an audio tour, which will include the history of military working dogs before and after Vietnam, and a registry.

"They did their job well, and they deserve to be recognized," said Myers, who is hopeful the Military Working Dog Tribute will be unveiled sometime next year.

An AP Member Exchange Feature shared by Leader-Telegram

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