May 27, 2011 -- This Memorial Day, despite the fact that a dog named Cairo helped Navy Seals bag Bin Laden; despite the fact that some 100,000 U.S. dogs served in World War One, World War Two and in Vietnam, no one will lay a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Canine.
There's no such thing at Arlington. No statue. No plaque. No urn. No bush. No flame. No nothing to honor or acknowledge the sacrifice of veterans who, though they may have spun around three times before bedding down, were veterans none the less.
Susan Orlean, author of a forthcoming biography of Rin Tin Tin, has researched the contributions made by dogs in America's wars.
In WWI they served as messengers and sentries. They carried medical supplies. They sought out dying men on the battlefield and lay beside them to comfort them. By far the most famous was Sergeant Stubby (1916-1926).
Stubby, a brindle pup, served with the 102nd Infantry, entering combat on February 5, 1918 at Chemin des Dames and going on to participate in four offensives and 17 battles. He was wounded in the leg by retreating Germans and later gassed. He learned to offer a modified salute, lifting his right paw to his right eyebrow. For services that included catching (literally) a German spy, he was made a lifetime member of the American Legion and was awarded a gold medal, presented to him personally by General Pershing.
When World War II broke out, the only dogs the Army had were 20 Alaskan Huskies. More were needed immediately--and in quantity. The military could not draft puppies; it needed full-grown dogs.
"There was a great push," says Orlean, to encourage the public to donate pets of a certain size."
Rin Tin Tin gave up his Hollywood career and was pressed into service as a recruiter (not of people but of dogs). People saw his posters and volunteered their pets. In the South Pacific, dogs were used at Iwo Jima to root Japanese soldiers out of caves.
During Vietnam, dogs sniffed out snipers, booby traps and bombs. By some estimates, the Viet Nam Wall's list of dead in Washington D.C. would list another 10,000 names, were it not for the life-saving efforts of that war's dogs.
"These were real beings," says Orlean. "They went into battle."
So shouldn't they be buried—or at least acknowledged--at Arlington? "It wouldn't bother me," she says, but adds that she understands not everyone shares her view.
Arlington's eligibility rules prohibit burial of animals. In 2002, when a veterans group made up of one-time war dog-handlers tried to donate a tree honoring K9s, Arlington declined to accept, viewing it perhaps as a paw-in-the-door to canine interment. When the same group tried to donate a memorial to a military cemetery in Riverside, Calif., the Department of Veterans Affairs objected, according to a V.A. spokesperson.
Nor are dogs eligible, officially, to receive medals or other military decorations. Despite what you may have read about dogs in Afghanistan having been given Purple Hearts or a Silver Star, any such awards are at best informal, conferred by the men the dogs served with—not by the Pentagon or by the Department of the Army.
Ron Aiello, head of the U.S. War Dogs Association, dismisses them as "feel-good honors."
Now civilians, war dog ex-handlers, and sympathetic veterans are taking matters into their own hands.
Aiello tried for years to get the Army to create some official award or certificate to honor the heroics of military dogs. No dice.
"We give these only to humans, was their position," says Aiello. To do otherwise, he was told, would be to dishonor or detract from the human honors. He then asked if the Army would create an award specific to dogs. They again declined, he says.
"We went ahead," he says, "and created our own military working dog service award, which we have been awarding to dogs on the request of their handlers, even though the Department of Defense is still opposed."
In April, the only private memorial to war dogs west of the Mississippi was dedicated in Encinitas, California, near San Diego. At the dedication, a U.S. Marine delivered a poem celebrating war dogs' vigilance, loyalty and companionship. Jim Silvera, the president of the Rancho Coastal Humane Society, along with philanthropist Madeleine Pickens, got the idea for the memorial after taking a tour of Arlington Cemetery.
Pickens' efforts on behalf of war dogs go beyond the ceremonial. She has adopted a retired war dog named Chiyba. "She was one of the first dogs deployed in Iraq," says Pickens. "When I brought her home, she cased our entire house. I had to explain to her she was retired, but she still sniffed out everything. I've never had a guest before who sniffed my fireplace."
Thanks to a bill signed into law by President Clinton, civilians can now adopt retired war dogs. For more information on adoption and legislation needed to make it easier, contact Debbie Kandoll, Military Working Dog Adoptions.
John Burnam of the U.S. War Dog Association, along with Ron Aiello, are working to establish a Military Working Dog Teams National Monument at Ft. Belvoir in Virginia, where the U.S. Army is building a national museum. The Department of Defense has given its okay for the erection of a statue.
Says Burnam, "The Secretary of Defense has signed off. We've cleared all the political hurdles. Now we're into fundraising." He figures he will need to raise $915,000 if they monument is to be up and running, so to speak, by Memorial Day 2012.
Orlean believes the ultimate goal would be to create a national war dog cemetery--"a memorial on a par to and near Arlington. Separate but wonderful."
On Memorial Day, how best to honor war dogs? You could go to Encinitas and lay a wreath. Or you could kneel down and scratch that monument behind the ear.