Overlooked War Heroes, Military Dogs Remind Us All What Loyalty And Love Truly Mean

Earlier this week, I read an article about a Russian war dog who allegedly “switched sides” to work for the Ukrainian Army.

Rumor has it this dog was left behind by its handler, and the Ukrainians found it starving and neglected. 

While I find it odd that a handler would leave behind their pup, and I’ve written fairly extensively on the propaganda that has come out of this particular conflict, it got me thinking about military working dogs.

On Memorial Day weekend, I think it’s fitting to take some time to pay some respect to military war dogs past and present.

A Long History

Civilizations have used dogs to fight battles since as early as 600 B.C. They were mainly used to break up enemy formations. They were often set loose in advance of armies to help thin out the opposing force.

Dogs have had a pivotal role in fighting our wars, going back to the Civil War here in the United States. Sallie was a Civil War military dog who died two months before the end of the war due to a bullet wound. 

Stubby

Perhaps the most famous military war dog is Stubby from World War I. Accidental mascot-turned key asset-turned beloved legend; Stubby started his journey as a tag-along with Connecticut soldiers training before deployment.

He later followed the 102nd Infantry overseas and managed to provide early warning of artillery, gas, and infantry attacks. He even, at one point, allegedly had a gas mask fashioned for him. 

He sustained wounds from a hand grenade, and it looked as if he wouldn’t make it. But Stubby pulled through and was even promoted to the rank of Sergeant after apprehending a German spy. 

Stubby became not just a mascot in the military but also well-loved back at home. He was gifted a lifetime membership in the American Legion and often led parades in Washington D.C. His favorite perk was his lifetime membership to the YMCA, which included three bones a day at any YMCA in the country.

Stubby died in 1926. He was honored with an obituary in the New York Times that was three columns wide by half a page long.

I usually am not a fan of animated movies, but I recommend checking out Sgt Stubby: An American Hero. It’ll make you laugh, make you feel good, and yes…it will inevitably make you cry. Also suitable for kids and can help bridge tough conversations about war.

Eisenhower Gets More Than He Bargained For

WWII had Chips, a German Shepherd-Collie-Husky mix. Chips earned fame for his instrumental role in capturing 14 Italian soldiers in one day during the invasion of Sicily. In this operation, he sustained wounds but did not stop rooting out the bad guys and protecting his fellow soldiers. 

Chips received the Silver Star, Distinguished Service Cross, and Purple Heart. Unfortunately, the practice of decorating military war dogs was suspended shortly after over the controversy of dogs receiving the same honors as soldiers.

Most military working dog handlers would argue that they deserve the same notoriety that the soldiers do.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower had the honor of meeting Chips in 1945. When he bent down to pet Chips, the dog did what he knew to do. He bit him. Because he didn’t know him, or perhaps he just didn’t like Ike.

Loyalty, Through and Through

Nemo was a fierce military dog who served in Vietnam. His deep love for his handler matched his viciousness towards the enemy. 

Nemo and his handler were attacked by Viet Cong guerrillas. He viciously attacked the aggressors, allowing his handler to provide fire and cover. As a result, Nemo was shot in the eye and his handler in the shoulder. 

While waiting for the reinforcements, Nemo laid on his handler to keep him safe and had to be pried off by other handlers. 

The pup needed considerable surgery. The base veterinarian said of his injuries:

“He was in pretty bad shape. I had to do skin grafts on his face and perform a tracheotomy to help him breathe. His right eye had to be removed, but even this didn’t lessen his ability.”

Nemo passed away in 1972 on Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, where his kennel was turned into a memorial that you can still see to this day.

A Forgotten Hero And His Handler

Almost every adult American remembers the raid that got Osama bin Laden. I was in the service and was deployed in Africa when the operation took place, and it is a crystal clear memory for me to this day.

A lot of Americans don’t know that there was a military war dog on that mission, Cairo. 

Cairo had already seen a fair share of combat before Operation Neptune Spear. He was particularly gifted at telling the difference between a hostile and a civilian or child. Many of us who served in Afghanistan are well aware that women and children were often used as shields to force American soldiers to kill them accidentally.

Cairo was able to tell the difference. His handler, Will Chesney, says in his book No Ordinary Dog of one particular encounter where Cairo sniffed out a young child left under blankets by bad guys in another room:

“I don’t quite know how to explain the fact that he didn’t harm the child, except to say that Cairo was indeed a special dog. He knew right from wrong, good from bad.”

If only more of us were so clairvoyant. In 2009 Cairo was almost lost. He took a bullet to the chest and front leg while on a mission. His handler held him as he bled out, struggling for each breath as he called in on the radio “FWIA” – Friendly Wounded in Action. 

We don’t see a difference between a wounded soldier and a wounded military working dog. Thankfully surgery saved Cairo, and he went on his last mission with Chesney to get Osama bin Laden.

War is Hell, for Man and Man’s Best Friend

There are roughly 1,600 working dogs in the United States military.

A study found in 2014 that 5% to 10% of deployed military working dogs show signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

One such dog was Gina, who served in Iraq from 2008 to 2009. Gina started showing signs of PTSD in the form of being jittery and panicked by everyday things. Sounds familiar for too many of us fellow soldiers.

Dr. Christopher Pachel, a veterinarian with the Animal Behavior Clinic, says of PTSD in dogs:

“The challenge that we run into, and this is true for PTSD as well as almost any other issue where there’s been some sort of trauma, is that we can layer on new emotional responses and we can teach coping skills but what we can’t do is erase the memory of whatever that trauma was.”

We can’t erase the memory. Indeed you can’t. 

A Final Word

There is something magical about dogs. And something otherworldly about military dogs. What would this world be like if those of us on two legs had just a fraction of the love and loyalty that our furry four-legged friends have in their hearts?

Airman Bob Throneburg wrote of his dog, Nemo :

Brave beyond words.

Ferocious without self-regard.

Bonds never broken.

Loyal till death.

Defender of the night.

He was a war dog.

Stay back, handler down!

That’s a good boy.

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