By Ashley Cullins - Medill News Service
Marine CorpsA combat tracker handler and his dog play around at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan. Retired military working dogs are classified as "excess equipment" -- something advocates are trying to change.
Staff Sgt. Stephen Linch / Air ForceRado, an 8-year-old German shepherd Navy working dog, searches for contraband during a detection training exercise at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti.
They have four legs, cold wet noses and tails that often wag furiously. Yet the Defense Department classifies its working dogs as equipment. Advocates for the four-footed troops want this to change.
“When you lose a military working dog, you can’t just take another one off the shelf,” said Debbie Kandoll, founder of Military Working Dog Adoptions. “They’re not that easy to replace.”
Kandoll said she thinks the labeling of working dogs as equipment came by default.
“There are two classifications: manpower and equipment,” she said. “They’re not manpower, so they’re equipment.”
And once they retire, they’re classified as excess equipment.
“They could create a separate category for them, but they’ve just never done that,” Kandoll said.
The result, Kandoll said, is that retired military working dogs do not get the benefits they deserve, specifically transportation home, medical care and commendations.
The Defense Department can’t comment on working dogs’ classification “due to pending legislation,” said Gerry Proctor, a public affairs official with the Air Force’s 37th Training Wing.
To be sure, today’s military working dogs are not simply abandoned in the war zones, as they were in Vietnam, said Ron Aiello, a Vietnam veteran and former dog handler who now runs the U.S. War Dog Association.
But those who retire on U.S. military bases normally are not transported back to the States unless their adopter wants to pay for it.
“Once that dog is adopted, it becomes a pet, and therefore loses its [military working dog] status,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Mary Kay Hertog told the Air Force News Service in 2009, when she was the Air Force’s director of security forces. “So it would be fraud, waste and abuse for the DoD to transport that pet.”
Kandoll said she would be happy if DoD would go halfway and at least transport the dogs stateside.
“Get it back to the continental U.S. and then let the adopter pay after that,” she said. “Half-empty cargo planes … traverse the globe daily that could take a dog in a crate weighing 150 pounds and get it back to the U.S.”
After getting the dogs home, another hurdle that adopters face is paying for the health care of retired military working dogs. Many of the dogs have work-related health problems, and their care can be expensive.
But DoD said potential adopters are made aware of any health problems a dog has. “All issues associated with the dog are made known to the adopting families,” Proctor said. “The adopting families are also given one month of follow-on care and a one-month supply of medications.”
Kandoll said the military could do more, suggesting that adopters — even civilians — should be able to take their retired dog to a military vet on a nearby base and pay for the services at cost. She said it’s a win-win situation because DoD would not lose money and the owners would save big bucks.
“DoD already pays the vet, and the owner would reimburse Uncle Sam out of pocket for other expenses,” she said. “Where you might spend $700 at a normal vet, it might be reduced to $150 or $200.”
Another issue Aiello is focusing on is getting commendations for the dogs.
“It’s a question I get over and over again from the handlers,” he said. “They ask, ‘Why can’t my dog receive some type of recognition for what they’ve done for me and other troops?’”
Aiello said he has been writing letters to DoD for eight years without making much headway.
“They keep saying … that any medal, award or commendation is only for humans, not for animals,” he said.
Aiello recently tried a slightly different approach with no luck.
“The last letter I wrote to them I asked for them to create a medal or award specifically for the canine, so it would not in any way infringe on the awards they give to the troops,” he said.
Proctor said that while the Pentagon values the contributions of military working dogs, “there are no provisions in the law for military working dog commendations.”
Aiello said he thinks the resistance is rooted in the classification of military working dogs as equipment.
“They’re not even classified as a living being,” he said. “That’s part of why they don’t want to give them medals because then they have to recognize these dogs as something other than excess equipment, and maybe that’s not something they want to do.”
For Kandoll, even calling the dogs “equipment” is jarring.
“When the dogs are on active duty, they’re treated like royalty,” Kandoll said. “There is no handler that would ever call a dog a piece of equipment.”
Cindy Underwood, a civilian who adopted a retired military dog named Rambo, is also disturbed by the classification.
“It’s not fair for him to be treated like a garbage can, a gun or a truck,” Underwood said.
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