- By Rebecca Frankel
Rebecca Frankel is deputy editor at Foreign Policy. She is the author of War Dogs: Tales of Canine Heroism, History, and Love a New York Times bestselling book about canines in combat, the subject of her regular Friday column "Rebecca's War Dog of the Week," featured on The Best Defense. She has appeared as a guest on Conan O'Brien, BBC World News, and the Diane Rehm Show among others.
By Rebecca Frankel
Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent
In the free-for-all that constitutes information sharing in the age of Twitter, Face Book, and personal blogs, there is plenty of misinformation about Military Working Dogs (MWDs) circulating on social media and on not-to-be-trusted websites. These myths range from the fairly innocuous and tiresome (MWDs are outfitted with titanium teeth to make them more ferocious) to the blatantly false and far more serious (all MWDS are euthanized at the end of their military careers). But you generally don’t see this kind of un-reported rumor mongering on reputable news sites.
So I was plenty surprised to see two pieces — "No Military Dog Left Behind" and "Don’t Abandon Our Dogs of War" — in the online op-ed sections of USA Today and The National Review respectively. Both pieces, published in early September, are the work of Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large of National Review Online and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. (Though they have different titles, both articles, with the exception of a few words, are identical.)
In his op-ed, Goldberg has seized on what is the worst of the misinformation swirling around MWDs: that as the U.S. military withdraws from Afghanistan (and presumably when we left Iraq), it is leaving its dogs behind. There are so many things wrong with Goldberg’s accounting of MWDs — an accomplishment in its own right given that his article is only 684 words long — it is hard to know where to begin to unravel them all.
Can you hear the sound of handlers all over the country heaving a collective sigh of exasperation? You can bet they are. Because what was once just a frustrating rumor has, in Goldberg’s hands, morphed into not only a patently false claim, but now a nationally published one.
So let me be clear: the U.S. military does not treat its dogs like dispensable pieces of equipment. And the U.S. military does not leave its dogs behind. And anyone repeating these untruths is not only doing the dogs a tremendous disservice, but is, I worry, negatively impacting the future of the MWD program.
Now, Goldberg is not saying that the dogs’ handlers are treating their partners like equipment — the stories of life-saving heroics during combat tours are too well recorded and honored. We understand that there is a deep bond at the center of most of these handler-dog relationships and we love hearing their stories. (No doubt something on which Goldberg is counting.) No: he is claiming that it’s the military as an institution that is mistreating these dogs and their handlers by extension.
When it comes to responding to this charge that the military treats dogs like pieces of equipment Douglas Miller just sounds tired. "It is totally untrue," he said in a phone interview last week.
Miller is the Department of Defense Military Working Dog program manager and works out of Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. He is himself a retired Air Force colonel and former dog handler. After five years in this post, he’s had to deal with this issue more times than he would care to — more often than he has time for. "In the big picture," he told me, "it steals countless hours from my whole chain of command."
Even still, he says, at the highest levels within the Air Force — the executive agent that oversees the MWD programs — they are working "to eliminate anything within the AF instructions referring to MWDs as equipment." (Not that he could find any written reference to the dogs as such.)
So where does this rumor come from? It could be because people have difficulty with the idea that these dogs are assigned ID numbers, relegating them to something less than they deserve. As Miller explained, each MWD gets what’s called a National Stock Number, or NSN. This number is not just an identifying number; it connotes the dog’s capability, indicating things like whether the dog has been trained on explosives or for patrol work. But Miller says, it’s really no different than anything else under the military’s purview, including people. "Much like for the military we have an MOS [Military Occupational Specialty] or a AF specialty code, which [identifies] what we’ve been trained in, what is our mission set."
But he was adamant: "We do not ever treat them like equipment," he said, "because you don’t feed and care for equipment, you don’t offer it 24-hour access to veterinary care." And, Miller added, "there is a bond, there is a relationship between that handler and that dog. That dog doesn’t go anywhere without his handler. It’s a team."
In the pre-deployment training course I attended in March of 2012 — the Inter-Service Advanced Skills K-9 (ISAK) course run by the Marine Corps at the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona — there was one line that was repeated over and over again before each practice mission. It is the directive that every handler is trained to communicate not only to his commanders, but also to the other men and women on their mission: "Where I go, my dog goes. Where my dog goes, I go."
And this is an absolute. In the event "the handler was injured and they were hospitalized, that dog is then taken by another individual back to its unit. It’s not left behind," said Miller.
When Marine handler Sgt. Joshua Ashley was KIA in July 2012, his dog Sirius was assigned to another Marine handler, Lance Cpl. Kent Ferrell (who had lost his dog Zora, a loss Goldberg mentions in his article). MWD Sirius was not left in Afghanistan, but he returned to Camp Lejeune with Ferrell and the rest of his fellow Marines from II-MEF.
Goldberg also takes issue with how MWDs are retired from service: "The military sometimes says they are "retired" and become "civilians," but the result is the same because these civilians don’t have a right to military transport home."
Goldberg uses the word "home" to mean the United States. But to say that MWDs aren’t delivered "home" implies that they are left in a place that’s foreign to them in the care of strangers or that they are all together abandoned and rendered homeless. But an MWD’s home is his U.S. military home station — at least while he’s in service.
"They ship as a team, they do their mission, they come back as a team to their home base," Miller said.
When a dog’s time in the military has come to an end and the dog is ready to retire, here’s how it works: The dog is first put under review. This is an involved but expedited process* that includes input from veterinarians, behaviorists, and guidance of that dog’s home station’s kennel master — the person familiar with that dog’s entire career. When it’s determined that the dog is in good health and is of suitable temperament for life as a house dog, the military reviews the candidates who want to adopt the dog — often times there is a long list of the dog’s former handlers who are ready and willing to take him home. ("Home" in this case being a private residence.)
But again, this adoption is executed from the home station and that may not be inside the continental United States, meaning that the dog might be adopted by a former handler (or another service member) stationed in Japan, or Korea. And as Miller points out, "we don’t have the funds" to ship the dog (or cover the cost of sending a person to accompany the dog) back to the United States to a handler who wants them. The cost of bringing a dog overseas can be quite high and prohibitive for a handler who just wants his dog back home again. And thinking of a handler who wants his dog again, but can’t have him pulls my heartstrings, too. But that’s hardly the picture Goldberg paints; he writes:
"It is one thing to ask these warriors to say goodbye to their dog when it is still on active duty and is assigned a new handler, which often happens. It is quite another to ask them to leave these dogs behind when the dogs are effectively abandoned overseas, left to languish in shelters — or worse. That’s why handlers are sometimes forced to make incredible sacrifices to get their four-legged comrades home on their own."
This is so hyperbolic and false it borders on the ridiculous (including the unsubstatiated and undefined "worse" mentioned here). But there are legitimate organizations that work to help handlers who cannot afford to bring their former (and newly retired) canine partners from their overseas homestation to the states — organizations like the United States War Dogs Association. The president of this non-profit is Ron Aiello, a veteran who was an MWD handler during the Vietnam War. (Full disclosure: I write about Aiello, his scout dog Stormy and their tour in Vietnam in my book.)
Aiello is a tireless advocate for MWDs and has worked for over a decade supporting MWD teams all over the world during their deployments as well as when their service is over. (He has most recently devoted his time and efforts to working to help supplement the cost of prescription drugs for retired MWDs.)
But even Aiello doesn’t want the attention Goldberg’s article is bringing the dogs.
"The article for us, is good, actually," Aiello told me over the phone last week, saying that it presents the kind of emtionally charged case that would incite people to act and to make donations. "But," he said, "I don’t want donations coming in for that purpose. I’d rather tell people the truth, and if they want to make a donation that’s fine."
But like any rumor, there is always somewhere, at the point of origin, a kernel of truth.
The U.S. military did leave its dogs behind, once, more than 40 years ago. When U.S. troops made their hasty withdrawal from Vietnam, they did not take the dogs with them. They were left in the care of South Vietnamese and most likely met a terrible end. It is a blemish on our military history that cannot be washed away. But one I believe would never happen today.
Even handlers, like Aiello who served in Vietnam and who know the real pain of having their military dogs left behind, understand this. And part of the reason why is because of us — the public: a community of citizens who will engage our elected officials, are willing to rage against anyone who mistreats or abuses animals. But as watchdogs and concerned citizens, we have to be careful about who we trust. But reporters and other disseminators of information on MWDs, must be diligent and responsible and that is where Goldberg has failed on an epic level.
So how does Goldberg get this all so wrong? It is possible that Goldberg is just very confused (or lazy) and has mixed up a lot of things about MWDs. For example, the difference between Military Working Dogs and Contract Working Dogs (CWDs) which are, as Bill Childress, the Marine Corps MWD program manager, explained it to me, a little like Rent-A-Cops — the military contracts out CWD teams for certain missions. But the military has limited ability to maintain oversight into and influence over these contractors.
The only problem is, nowhere, not even once, does Goldberg specifically distinguish or even mention CWDs.
And maybe he should have — because if CWDs are being mistreated, then someone should answer for it. Someone should go after these contractors, name them, and put a big shining spot light on this mistreatment. And then call these companies up for comment. Make them answer for it. Or reach out to the people here in the States who are working so hard to get these CWDs into good civilian U.S. homes and let them share their stories. But let’s be clear — CWDs and MWDs are not the same thing and confusing the two is problematic.
It’s worth noting that Goldberg didn’t provide one original source or conduct an interview for his column. (At least none that were referred to in his article. Childress, Miller, and Aiello all said that no one reached out to them for comment.) Goldberg does include a quote from Gerry Proctor a "spokesman for Lackland Air Force Base" — a position Proctor hasn’t held in nearly two years. (The quote, which was given to CNN, is from 2012.)
The problem with this kind of opportunistic, quick skim hack-job built on links from other news sites, is that it’s senseless. Who does Goldberg’s article actually help? It’s not our military dogs, and it’s certainly not our handlers.
As I’ve said here before, these dog teams are the single most effective tool we have in combating IEDs. Our need for them is not going to diminish in the coming years, even if we completely withdraw from Afghanistan or only deploy the smallest of forces back into Iraq. And as the military continues its fiscal belt-tightening and the paring down of our MWD program, we cannot afford to have the integrity of our program compromised in the eyes of our lawmakers or their constituents.
In my view, all Goldberg’s article has achieved, unfortunately, is in making a big mess, one that others are now left to clean up.
It’s not just Miller or Childress wasting their time answering Congressional inquiries — time that would otherwise be spent devoted to handlers and their dogs still deployed and on active duty — or Aiello who has been answering angry and confused emails instead of sorting out the prescription requests for his new program. But it’s the handlers who will also have to answer for this. Do we honestly think that they would knowingly allow their dogs to be left behind "like a latrine tent"? As Goldberg so crassly puts it. No, they wouldn’t. And it’s a cutting, underserved insult to them even if it’s only an unwitting implication.
So, please, relieve yourself of any pitiable picture Goldberg’s words might have conjured — that of heartbroken military dogs being left unattended, alone in the desert of Iraq and Afghanistan on some vacated FOB while their handlers board a flight back to the land of the free and the home of the brave without them.
That does not happen.
As Childress said, "These dogs are treated like Marines. We bring everybody home."
And no one should be sorry that this myth that military working dogs are left behind is just that — a myth. Not even Jonah Goldberg.
Rebecca Frankel is senior editor, special projects at Foreign Policy. Her book, War Dogs: Tales of Canine Heroism, History, and Love will be published on Oct. 14.
*On Jan. 24, 2000 Congress enacted a piece of legislation known as the Robby Law. It purpose is to: "to facilitate the adoption of retired military working dogs by law enforcement agencies, former handlers of these dogs, and other persons capable of caring for these dogs."
It also was implemented to provide oversight and to mandate accountability for the care and attention MWDs are given at the close of their military careers. (Because for a period of time the dogs were euthanized and not adopted out after service.) The law required that each year "an annual report specifying the number of military working dogs adopted under this section during the preceding year, the number of these dogs currently awaiting adoption, and the number of these dogs euthanized during the preceding year." If a dog is euthanized then "the report shall contain an explanation of the reasons why the dog was euthanized rather than retained for adoption under this section."
According to Miller there are currently 1,250 people on the waiting list in line to adopt a retired MWD. (For anyone who’s interested in how this really process works, ahem, the U.S. Air Force has information posted here.)
In other words, these MWDs are not falling through the cracks. (During the course of researching my book, I reviewed all the records I could obtain — they are available to the public — and though they ranged in consistency of detail from year to year, they were amply maintained.)
In the photo above, U.S. Marine Cpl. Kyle Click, a dog handler shares a moment with Windy, an improvised explosive device detection dog, while waiting to resume a security patrol on Feb. 27, 2012. Photo by Cpl. Reece Lodder