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No military dog left behind

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AFP/Getty Images
U.S. Army Sgt. Nathan Arriaga sleeps with Zzarr, a 6-year old Dutch shepherd trained to detect bombs and IEDs, before a patrol mission in southern Afghanistan in July 2011.

We’ve all heard the expression: “A man’s best friend is his equipment.” You haven’t? Well you must not work for the Pentagon. There, military dogs are considered mere “equipment” and as such can be left behind when the troops come home.

It’s a bit more complicated than that. Military dogs are enlisted (drafted, actually) to identify enemy locations, to seek out bombs and to protect bases. It is dangerous, often traumatic, work. The dogs are credited with saving countless U.S. and allied lives, which is why the Taliban actively target our dogs of war. While on active service, each dog is given a higher rank than its handler.

That is, right up until the moment these dogs are “retired.” Once they are too old, too shellshocked or simply not needed, the dogs are automatically declared equipment that can be left behind like a latrine tent. The military sometimes says they are “retired” and become “civilians,” but the result is the same because these civilians don’t have a right to military transport home.

Need convincing?

“While there is a proper, legal classification for a working dog, we know they are living things, and we have great respect and admiration for them,” Gerry Proctor, a spokesman for Lackland Air Force Base (which trains military dogs), told CNN. “A handler would never speak of their dog as a piece of equipment. The dog is their partner. You can walk away from a damaged tank, but not your dog. Never.”

If you ever talked to a military dog handler, or even if you simply had a dog, odds are you know the obvious truth of this. If you still need convincing, watch the 2013 Animal Planet documentary about U.S. war dogs in Afghanistan, “Glory Hounds,” to see not merely how vital these animals are, but also how powerful the bond between the handler and his canine comrades is. “The relationship between you and your dog is the most important part of your partnership,” Lance Cpl. Kent Ferrell, whose German shepherd, Zora, is trained to both attack the enemy and find explosives, explains in the film. “Your dog has to be able to trust you.”

But that trust often goes unrewarded.

It is one thing to ask these warriors to say goodbye to their dog when it is still on active duty and is assigned a new handler, which often happens. It is quite another to ask them to leave these dogs behind when the dogs are effectively abandoned overseas, left to languish in shelters — or worse. That’s why handlers are sometimes forced to make incredible sacrifices to get their four-legged comrades home on their own.

Organizations such as the United States War Dogs Association, the American Humane Association and K9s of the War on Terror do heroic work to reunite them when possible, at no taxpayer expense. One need only watch the videos of these reunions to see that the effort was worth it.

Legislation pushed by Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., that would require military dogs to be retired only upon return to the United States has been languishing in Congress for years. Politically, and morally, it’s understandable that the top priority must be given to providing human veterans with adequate care, particularly amid the horrific Veterans Affairs scandals plaguing the Obama administration. No politician wants to be accused of caring more about dogs than people.

But that’s largely a false choice. The cost of finding room on military transports is negligible, according to many. Private organizations can handle the rest.

Even if it did come at some additional cost, so what? Going by simple cost-benefit analysis, the military wouldn’t go to such great lengths to retrieve the bodies of fallen soldiers or protect the American flag and yet it does. Why? Because everyone understands that such obligations are morally required and vital to morale.

“There are those who consider our military working dogs to be pieces of gear,” Ferrell says in “Glory Hounds.” “I, for one, do not believe that at all. To try to remove your heart from the situation is really asking too much of a handler.”

And not just the handlers.

Jonah Goldberg, editor at large of National Review Online, is the author of “The Tyranny of Clichés.”

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