Several news reports this month shed light on the reality of life for U.S. military dogs. What’s clear is that canines have carved out a critical and expanding role many years into the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. They sniff out weapons caches, IEDs, insurgents—and, more controversially, they have been used to frighten and intimidate detainees. They also serve as a comfort to some of the soldiers with whom they work.
But they also suffer. According to The Washington Post, 11 dogs have been killed in combat. Others have been wounded and still others seem to be suffering combat stress.
Walter Burghardt, chief of behavioral medicine at the Department of Defense Military Working Dog Veterinary Service, has been studying the effects of combat on dogs for two years. He told The Post he doesn’t like to use the term post-traumatic stress disorder with dogs. But, he concedes, “war can affect them emotionally,” claiming antidepressants, more play time and working the job they’ve been trained to do can help.
The servicemen quoted in a Wall Street Journal story by Michael M. Phillips aren’t hesitant to use the term PTSD, especially when they talk about Gunner, a bomb-sniffing Labrador Retriever at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan. Gunner cowers or bolts at a sharp crack, boom, or even the click of a camera shutter; he has been deemed “combat-ineffective.” Another bomb dog, refused to work with Marines for a time after seeing a serviceman shoot a feral Afghan dog. Still others struggle with what appear to be violent nightmares.
And how do we reward them? There’s an effort to create a medal for dogs and a memorial, which won’t make any difference to them. Instead, these service dogs need to be guaranteed treatment for stress for as long as they need it and a good home after they complete their service. (The Humane Society has given the Pentagon good marks for its efforts to provide for retired dogs.) They also need to be protected from exploitation during training and while in a war zone. I was appalled to read in the Daily Herald, a suburban Chicago paper, three explosives-detection trainees died and dozens more were rescued in poor health due to the neglect of a private security contractor working for a Navy supplier. That’s obviously unacceptable.