Honoring Those Who Serve

I know this is a little late for Veterans Day, but bear with me. It’s worthwhile. Anyhow, we should honor those who serve our country every day.

In January, military dogs will finally get some recognition. The U.S. Military Working Dog Teams National Monument, honoring every dog who has served in the U.S. military since WW II, will be unveiled in California. A replica of the memorial will be featured on a float in the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena on Jan. 1.

The real monument, featuring a 9-foot bronze dog handler and four 550-pound “hero sized” dogs — a Doberman, a German shepherd, a Labrador retriever, and a Malinois  — will go on tour, ending up at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, where many military dogs are trained.

John Burnam, a veteran military dog handler and the man whose passion and tireless efforts have made this monument a reality, is an inspiration and a true friend to military dogs. In addition to spearheading the effort to create the monument, Burnam designed the monument.

Dogs have served in the military since the times of the Roman Empire. Many dogs have died in service. Many dogs serve in roles that pretty much guarantee they will die in service, with the goal that, in doing so, human lives will be saved.

As a dog lover, I wrestle with the ethics of this. In a class discussion of military dogs last spring, students pointed out that we send our children to serve in dangerous roles; why is sending dogs any worse? Others argued that the humans have choices and a greater understanding of the risks and benefits.

I do believe that dogs understand the concept of danger — and that some dogs freely choose to risk their own lives or safety to assist humans. Stories abound from dogs who took on snakes, challenged bulls or bears to protect humans to those who’ve saved people from fires, drowning, snowstorms, and even dogs who pull people from burning car wreckage after an accident.

The training of a military dog is intense and, in many cases these days, not based on the use of force or punishment. The dogs who just aren’t into it are unlikely to make the grade. So, in a sense, one could argue that the dogs have some choice in whether they accept their military mission. Still, the idea of dogs marching off to war is a painful one for me.

Since it’s likely, though, that humans will continue to go to war, and continue to take dogs along with them, it’s well past time to acknowledge the contributions and sacrifices of our canines in uniform.  Other countries, including  Italy, France, Russia, Belgium, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, and Great Britain, have national monuments to their military dogs. Several U.S. cities, cemeteries, and military bases also have memorials. But a national monument, joining the ranks of Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, and other national monuments, is a tremendous — well-deserved — honor.

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