War Veteran Dog Adoptions Rising but They Are Still Not Officially Recognized

Man's battlefield best friends labeled "surplus equipment" in retirement.

ByABC News
May 30, 2011, 4:53 PM

May 30, 2011— -- As Americans across the country celebrate this Memorial Day by celebrating the men and women who have served in our armed services, another group of dedicated warriors goes unrecognized.

Officially, dogs that serve with U.S. soldiers are labeled "surplus equipment," but they are so much more to the soldiers they help on the battlefield.

Stories of the dogs used by SEAL Team 6 in the mission that killed Osama bin Laden have renewed interest in adopting the dogs as they retire from their military service. But adopting a canine veteran can cost as much as $2,000, as the military does not pay for the dogs' return trips home.

"They've [known] heavy training, combat, gunfire, explosions and just like a human, you should retire at some point and live a more peaceful life, and that's what these dogs need," Ron Aiello, president of the U.S. War Dogs Association, told ABC News. "They only have two, three years remaining in their life, and I think they should live it with a loving family and in a peaceful atmosphere."

Find out more about adopting a military dog.

Aiello knows how much a dog can help on the battlefield; his canine companion in Vietnam was named "Stormy."

"As a dog team, when you're out on patrol or mission, you live together 24/7. You never leave each other's side. You work together, you play together, you eat together," he told ABC News.

He had to leave Stormy behind in Vietnam, but he is now working to get war dogs reclassified as canine veterans, which would make it easier to adopt them since the military would pay to bring them home.

About 3,000 dogs -- mostly Dutch shepherds, German shepherds, Labrador retrievers and Malinois -- are deployed with American forces around the world. Military officials credit them with saving thousands of lives.

"My dog personally saved me while I was over in Vietnam with her. … It's a bond that lasts a lifetime," Aiello told ABC News.

Every year, about 300 of these "war dogs" are retired from military service and put up for adoption. Since the May 2 raid on the bin Laden compound in Pakistan, officials said they'd received more than 400 adoption applications.

The Touchstone family, who live in the Los Angeles area, was more than happy to adopt 8-year-old German shepherd Bagger. They have given him a loving home, although the military would not tell the family anything about the dog's history.

"They give so much, and we owe them this. [They] do so much for the country," Tiffany Touchstone told ABC News. "The least we could do was repay them for their service."

In the past, these hero dogs were rarely as lucky as Bagger.

"Dogs have been fighting with U.S. soldiers for centuries ... unofficially in the Civil War, and then officially inducted into the U.S. Army in 1942 for World War II," Rebecca Frankel, deputy managing editor of foreignpolicy.com, who writes "War Dog of the Week", told ABC News.

Only 204 of the estimated 4,900 dogs that were employed by the U.S military in the Vietnam War returned to the United States, according to military dog organizations. The ones that didn't make it back were euthanized, abandoned or given away to the South Vietnamese army.

President Clinton legalized the adopting of war dogs in 2000.

Gerry Proctor, a spokesman for Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, told the Associated Press that none of the dogs were euthanized now.

"All the animals find a home," he said. "There's a six-month waiting list right now for people wanting to adopt. And [the applications] have gone up substantially since the raid."

Last year, 338 dogs were adopted by families, police departments and other governmental agencies -- a fitting retirement for man's best friend, who has proved he can also be a nation's best friend.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.