A Brief and Glorious History of America’s Canine Warriors

Military dogs like the one made famous by the raid in Syria have a long pedigree

A photo of Conan, a female Belgian Malinois military working dog.
/Twitter

ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi likely died with the sound of one of America’s most fearsome warriors still ringing in his ears.

In the aftermath of the Saturday night raid on al-Baghdadi’s compound in Syria’s northeastern Idlib province, U.S. officials revealed that it was a military working dog that pursued the elusive terror kingpin into the dead-end subterranean tunnel where he ignited his suicide vest, killing himself and three children he used as human shields. Of the U.S.’s elite forces who conducted the raid, only the dog was injured.

That a military working dog was involved in the raid is unsurprising: since 9/11, Man’s Best Friend has become an of the Global War on Terror. And as of Monday, the Unites States’ new favorite Good Boy — reportedly a female Belgian Malinois, the same breed as Cairo, the dog that accompanied Navy SEALs on the mission that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011 — had downrange. (Surprisingly, the dog’s name remains classified, though her name is Conan.)

That Trump, , reportedly wants to meet with Conan at the White House isn’t just astounding, but wholly unprecedented given that, for decades, the valor of military working dogs has gone wholly unrecognized. Dogs have been an integral part of U.S. military strategy since they started entering the service in World War II. Below, a brief history of U.S. military working dogs — and their rising stardom at home.

WWII: The birth of the K-9 Corps

While dogs have been employed in military conflicts from detecting intruders to , the only military working dogs employed by the U.S. Army prior to the U.S. entry into World War II were the assigned to remote military outposts in Alaska. to an internal history from the Army’s Quartermaster General, the rapid proliferation of new installations and industrial facilities also came with increasing concern over saboteurs and seditionists, especially as German submarines began operating off the eastern seaboard of the United States in 1942. Dogs offered a simple solution, their keen sense a valuable asset to Coast Guard beach patrols and, eventually, base security forces across the country.

The Army formally established the K-9 Corps in the to help solicit volunteer working dogs from across the United States. Indeed, the K-9 Corps produced one of the earliest heroes of the Army’s foray into military working dogs: , a mixed-breed canine who his handler to a machine-gun attack while assigned to the 7th Army during the Allied invasion of Sicily.

Chips was the only animal to ever receive a Silver Star for heroism in the invasion of Sicily. Photo: Bettmann/Getty

Chips was awarded the Silver Star and the Purple Heart for his efforts, an honor that apparently irked the Military Order of the Purple Heart, a congressionally chartered veterans’ organization. The group reportedly complained that “giving the medals to a dog was an insult to the men who received them,” to the American Kennel Club. As a result, the Army that any recognition of military animals “be published in unit general orders” rather than with a specific military award like the Silver Star or Purple heart. The order was essentially a warning to commanders to not dole out medals to military working dogs again; their achievements, the message said, were not on par with their human counterparts.

Vietnam: Nemo, hero of Tan Son Nhut

The achievements of war dogs went relatively unnoticed in the intervening years. to journalist Rebecca Frankel’s book War Dogs: Tales of Canine Heroism, History, and Love, the military canines of World War II were with saving some 15,000 men; in Vietnam, war dogs an estimated 87,000 missions in which dogs enabled more than 4,000 enemy kills. ”How the dogs came in, and how they came out again, is as important, in some ways, as what they did while they were there,” Frankel writes. “This discernable pattern of U.S. war dog history is one of building to a great success that is later shelved and forgotten, only to be rebuilt again when the need arises.”

The idea of retiring a military working dog back to the U.S. wasn’t even considered until the Vietnam War. In December 1966, an Air Force sentry dog named Nemo alerted his handler, Airman 1st Class Robert A. Throneburg, to an incoming Viet Cong commando raid on the American Tan Son Nhut air base before engaging the attacking force, “lung[ing] savagely forward into the enemy’s nest” with Throneburg close behind, to contemporary reports. After killing two VC fighters, Throneburg was wounded and Nemo lost his right eye, but the dog refused to leave his handler, protecting him from approaching soldiers until other Air Force security forces could arrive.

Nemo in his kennel at DOD Dog Center, Lackland AFB, Texas. Photo via /Nemo’s War Dog Heroes Memorial

Nemo would become the first sentry dog retired back to the United States; the 37th Security Forces Squadron kennel compound was in 2005. But he was one of a startling few: As Frankel notes, when the U.S. its canine programs after Vietnam, the Pentagon nearly 4,900 in the country. Veterans believe roughly 1,600 of the dogs were euthanized. Until President Bill Clinton “Robby’s Law” into law in 2000, it was common practice to simply euthanize military working dogs at the end of their service rather than overseeing their exit into the welcoming arms of civilian law enforcement or their former handlers.

The Global War on Terror: The rise of the modern war dog

The importance of working dogs in counter-IED and counter-insurgency operations post-9/11 has only grown, and not just because of uber-famous, Osama Bin Laden-hunting war dogs like Cairo. The proliferation of IEDs produced what Frankel the “Dog Surge,” an urgent need for Marine Corps Improvised Explosive Detector Dogs and the Army Tactical Explosive Detection Dogs. And since then, their primacy has only grown: look no further than , the multi-purpose canine (MPC) who helped alert Army Rangers to an ambush in Afghanistan this past December.

The military working dogs of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns are among the hardest-working in the history of U.S. warfare. Dogs allegedly saved 15,000 men during World War II, to Frankel; during a single deployment from 2010 to 2011, Air Force Staff Sgt. Justin Kitts and his dog Dyngo received the Bronze Star for, , “providing safety to more than 30,000 U.S., host nations, and coalition forces.”

But it wasn’t until the last five years that military working dogs received the most important reward of all: the ability to return to the arms of their handlers.

Former Cpl. Megan Leavey with her military working dog, Rex, during his retirement ceremony and adoption at Camp Pendleton’s K-9 unit, April 6, 2012. Photo: U.S. Marine Corps/Public domain

After two deployments to Iraq and a 2006 IED injury, Marine Cpl. Megan Leavey waged a to adopt her military working dog Rex, reuniting with him 10 months before his death only through the help of Sen. Chuck Schumer. In 2015, the Military Working Dog Retirement Act a preference for military working dog adoptions by their former handlers “unless the Secretary [of a military department] determines that adoption of the dog by the former handler would not be in the best interests of the dog.”

The U.S. military’s modern process of retiring working dogs is far from perfect: a 2018 report from the Pentagon’s Office of the Inspector General that the Army’s current program for dispositioning military canines still lacks sufficient management, accountability, and oversight. But Leavey’s story, released as a major motion picture in 2017, helped to afford military working dogs an ultimate honor: returning home to the open arms of their beloved humans. “A dog doesn’t value a medal on the mantle,” as Staff Sgt. Seth Kenny, a trainer with the 55th Security Forces Squadron, . “A dog values being pain-free when they try to walk up the stairs after spending 90% of their life truly giving their all without a second thought.”

Conan won’t receive any medals or citations, but she’ll almost certainly receive something else: a loving home to return to in recognition for her service to the country.

Deputy editor at Task & Purpose. Other words for Aeon, The Atlantic, LARB, Pacific Standard, TNR, Slate, Smithsonian, the Village Voice, and elsewhere

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