Getting Animals Out of the War Zone

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Getting Animals Out of the War Zone

By Margo DeMello, Animals and Society Institute (ASI)
October 2010

In my Animals & Society class this semester, one of my students is a dog.

Actually, one of my students is a veteran of the Iraq war with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who brings his psychiatric service dog, Rock, with him to class. Service dogs who assist veterans are able to help these men and women cope with problems like depression, anger, social isolation, nightmares, and panic attacks. Dogs like this protect the veteran from crowds and situations that might make them anxious. They provide a loving, calming presence to these people, can act as a social lubricant in social situations, allowing them to re-enter society, and turn on lights and check rooms to help their person feel safe.

This particular student has shared with me that his wife, also a veteran, has been fighting to bring her service dog home with her from the war. Many Americans don’t realize that dogs have long served with the American military—as guard dogs, to retrieve injured soldiers from the battlefield, as messengers, as scouts, as trackers, and, in recent wars, to detect mines.

The life of a military dog is, as one might guess, very dangerous. There are no estimates for how many dogs have been killed or injured during war, but thousands have died in the Vietnam war alone. War is not only dangerous for dogs, but as for people, it is stressful. It is only in recent years that scientists recognize that dogs can be afflicted with post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).

Another very sad reality for military dogs is that since World War II, when surviving military dogs were able to return home after the end of the war, it has been American military policy to not allow war dogs to return to the United States. Instead, the dogs who served their countries, and saved the lives of American soldiers, have either been left on the battlefield or killed outright. At the end of the Vietnam War, most of the American military dogs were either killed or left for the South Vietnamese Army; many of those dogs were no doubt eaten. After years of public outrage, in 2000 legislation was passed to allow retired military dogs to return home, where they either live with the soldiers with whom they served, or can be adopted into new families. Even with the new law, it is difficult for many soldiers to bring the dogs who they served with home with them. Many remain at war to serve with a new soldier after their previous handler has been discharged. For those that are allowed to retire, they are carefully evaluated for aggression or other temperament issues that would make the dogs dangerous at home, and are only placed with families (or law enforcement agencies) who understand the responsibilities of owning such unusual dogs. Adopters must also sign an agreement that absolves the US government of liability for damage or injury the dog may cause.

Many other soldiers in both Iraq and Afghanistan have befriended local dogs and cats, and on discharge from the military, have sought to bring those dogs home. Historically, this was impossible as the US military did not allow soldiers to bring home animals adopted from other countries, and in fact, often killed animals found wandering around US bases overseas. In recent years, though, animal protection organizations have rallied support and resources to allow soldiers to bring home animals that they’ve befriended.

The ASPCA International has a project called Operation Baghdad Pups which helps soldiers to bring animals home from Iraq, and a British-based organization, founded by a former soldier, Nowdaz, brings back dogs from Afghanistan and Iraq. (Nowzad also offers resources to help dogs, cats, horses and donkeys receive better treatment in Afghanistan.) These animals have provided comfort to soldiers during war, and most people agree that they should be allowed to come to the United States with their adopted soldiers. In addition, they often risk death or starvation if left behind, as neither Afghanistan nor Iraq currently has a culture that is very dog or cat friendly—especially when it comes to stray dogs or cats. Unfortunately, even with the US government permits the animals to come home, soldiers must fill out mountains of paperwork and must arrange for the dogs to be vaccinated and transported out of a war zone—which can cost thousands of dollars.

Projects like Operation Baghdad Pups and Nowzad recognize that the dogs and cats that the soldiers have found while at war not only helped them to cope with the traumas and anxieties of serving at war, but also can help the soldiers to reintegrate back into society when back home. And perhaps more importantly, they recognize that the soldier’s motto, “leave no one behind,” should extend to non-human animals as well.

To help get animals out of war zones, and into the families of the soldiers who love them, visit www.nowzad.com and www.spcai.org/baghdad-pups .