1966 -- It was Marine dog handler Ron Aiello’s first time leading night patrol through the almost impenetrable Vietnamese jungle. Stormy, his German shepherd partner, suddenly stopped short and looked to the side. When Aiello bent down to communicate better with her, a bullet whizzed over his head, fired from the area that Stormy had looked at.
“I thought, ‘I guess this really works’,’’ said Aiello, of his partnership with Stormy as she saved him and other soldiers from North Vietnamese snipers that night.
Now, Aiello is president of United States War Dog Association, a nonprofit that he founded with other dog handlers to honor dogs like Stormy and take care of today’s military canines.
The military dogs of Vietnam, like canine-service dogs of other wars, served in many different roles: scouts, sentries, trackers and booby-trap detectors. They were so effective that North Vietnamese gave bounties to anyone who killed a U.S. service dog.
But unlike dogs of other eras, the Vietnam War dogs were abandoned by the U.S military after the war. Of the 4,000 dogs who served in Vietnam, only 200 returned stateside, according to Michael Lemish, a military dog historian and author of Forever Forward: K-9 Operations in Vietnam.
The dogs were either euthanized or turned over to South Vietnamese, who viewed them as nuisances or worse.
“Vietnam was a horrible, horrible mistake,’’ says Aiello. “The dogs were thought of like pieces of equipment.’’
Vietnam War dog handlers easily recount stories of how their dogs accompanied them everywhere, leading point through dangerous jungles, detecting ambushes or performing sentry patrol on lonely nights. Some handlers become tearful acknowledging how much their dogs reassured them; their loyalty one of the few certainties in the chaos of war.
It is estimated that by using dogs, the U.S. saved more than 10,000 soldiers’ lives.
From the beginning of his stint, Aiello was paired with Stormy, who was different than other war dogs because she was smaller and female. On the trail, Stormy was disciplined and observant but back at camp, she became all dog, allowing other soldiers to pet her and basically use her as a makeshift therapy dog.
Aiello had just assumed that Stormy would come with him when he returned to the U.S. Instead, he was told Stormy was staying and getting a new handler. Aiello fought the order and tried to keep in touch with Stormy’s different handlers and bring her to the U.S. once the war ended. But he lost track of her and now doesn’t know what happened to the dog who saved his life.
He began the United States War Dog Association to make sure comrades like Stormy were not forgotten.
The group has raised money for prescription drugs for retired military dogs, helped reunite veterans with their dogs and sent overseas care packages to handlers and dogs.
They also successfully lobbied for legislation in 2001 to establish a program so dogs could be adopted once retired. In 2015, they closed a legislative loophole so that all retired military dogs are now sent to the U. S. after serving abroad. Dogs are no longer available for adoption out of overseas military bases.
“That one was important to us,’’ Aiello said. “Being adopted by people in Germany or wherever the base happens to be located is good but they just don’t have the understanding of what that dog did for America.’’