The Vietnam War is the only war in American history where military working dogs were officially used. Aside from Labrador retrievers, the military also used German Shepherds as scout dogs and mine-detection dogs and they were the first choice “war dog.” But, Labs were hard-working soldiers, as well. . However, very few of these canine combatants were not allowed to return home after the war because they classified as “expendable equipment.” Of the 4,000 US military working dogs sent to Vietnam, it is estimated that only about 200 US war dogs survived Vietnam and were put to work elsewhere. But, the vast majority were either left behind or euthanized. Though they had worked to help America win the war, they were not valuable enough to bring home. This is a sad truth that makes their story all the more worthy of being told.
Combat Tracker Teams
The US Army Labrador Retrievers received their combat training at the British Army’s Jungle Warfare School. Dog handlers were paired with a Labrador Retriever but they trained separately for most of the course, which was brutal. The commanding officers reminded the soldiers that they would have to keep up with their dogs and whipped them into shape so that they could.
The Labrador Retriever was the military’s choice for their Combat Tracker Teams, which consisted of one Labrador and 4 or 5 soldiers. There was a handler, an observer, a team leader or one or two cover men. The dogs were selected because they have amazing smelling skills. They were used to find wounded American soldiers as well as enemies.
The trackers have often credited their Labs for saving their lives by alerting them to enemies, traps and more. Because they are such friendly and easygoing dogs, they made great soldiers because they were able to adapt to different handlers as soldiers rotated in and out.
232 of the 4,000 service dogs serving in the war were killed in action. 295 soldiers acting as dog handlers were also killed in action. 6 Labs were killed in action. They played an important part in the war but were not treated with the respect that they deserved once combat was over. One soldier tried to buy his tracking dog, Moose (a Black Lab), at the end of his tour. But, the military would not let him. They were not allowed to leave Vietnam. The dogs, it was said, might spread disease. When the public and soldiers who had trained these dogs realized the indifference that the military had toward these furry soldiers, there was an outcry. It was terrible to imagine that these animals had simply been “gotten rid of.”
They were vital members of their units and the soldiers that worked alongside dearly loved them. Many were haunted and felt guilty for having left the dogs behind. Of course, they had no choice. But, having to leave these animals in Vietnam, or euthanizing them was as traumatic in some ways as killing or leaving behind a fellow human soldier. Labs have the types of personalities that endear them to their owners and handlers and they are loyal and obedient beyond measure. The heartbreak of leaving them behind must have been quite terrible.
It is only recently that the military has formally recognized the valuable service of military working dogs. In the year 2000, President Bill Clinton who signed an amendment that allowed retired war dogs of the US military to return home. Now, civilians and veterans can adopt these canines. In addition, various organizations have honored the service of these amazing dogs with statues, monuments and ceremonies. Today, Labrador Retrievers work under the Combat Stress Control Unit in Iraq where they work prevent and control stress in soldiers in combat zones. The dogs create a sense of family to soldiers. The trackers have also been having reunions since 2000 and have done on to dedicate a bench, engraved with the names of trackers and dogs killed in action, at the Ohio Veterans Memorial Park in Clinton, OH.
The Vietnam War was a terrible ordeal for everyone involved. Bloody, violent, frightening and foreign, the war was a particularly difficult one in American History for many reasons. For one thing, the American public took issue with the war altogether. For another, the war was fought in jungles and rain forests which were not familiar to our soldiers. Vietnam War soldiers were experiencing horror and death every day. They were alone and missed their families. But, their tracking partners became dear friends and companions with whom they shared harrowing missions and treacherous conditions. They slept together, ate together, looked out for one another and became close in ways that the average civilian may never understand. But, if you know the love of a dog – especially a Lab – then, you can imagine how important these pooches became to their human counterparts. These war heroes were treated terribly at the end of the war. But, what they did was valiant and important. So, let’s honor them today and every day!
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