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K9 Military Dogs: Can They Earn Service Medals?

K9 military dogs predate the United States, although it is hard to determine with precise historical accuracy when K9 military dogs were first used with military forces, we know that dogs were used thousands of years before the United States was founded.

Some historians have said that K9 military dogs were used during the Revolutionary War, but K9 military dogs did not get their official start in the U.S. military until the U.S. Army started its War Dog program during World War II. Since then, the use of K9 military dogs has been consistent and widespread in the U.S. military.

As the Global War on Terror became America’s longest war, the use of K9 military dogs on the battlefield became more widespread, especially in the areas of explosive detection and tracking. America’s enemies had honed their skill at burying and hiding explosive devices and they were causing high casualties; enter K9 military dogs.

More and more, K9 military dogs began to save lives, detecting improvised explosive devices and tracking down the enemy. Their presence on the battlefield helped bring home many military personnel unharmed.

For the brave teams that put themselves in harm’s way, detection was their mission, it was their job. Many handlers, especially those whose dogs were able to detect and find explosives on the battlefield, received decorations and commendations. Their dogs, however, received the eternal gratitude of their handlers and the warriors that they supported. Dog handlers are known to treat their dogs to a good steak or treats and they love them up, but many handlers believe that beyond dog treats, rewards and belly rubs, that K9 military dogs deserve to be decorated since they are a part of the team. The U.S. Defense Department disagrees.

In 1942, not long after the U.S. War Department started training K9 military dogs, Edward J. Wren of New York donated his dog, Chips, for enlistment and service in the U.S. military. The mixed-breed dog served in the U.S. Army and was in Sicily when he broke free of his handler and attacked an Italian machine gun nest, grabbing the enemy gunner by the throat. He was wounded in the attack, but later that night, Chips alerted his handler and his men of an approaching, attacking enemy force. For his actions, Chips was recommended for a Silver Star and a Purple Heart. He participated and earned credit for eight campaigns.  

The commander of a combat wounded veterans organization lodged a complaint with the War Department when he learned that Chips was getting decorated. He claimed that presenting medals to animals was insulting to the men who had earned them in combat. The military agreed, and from that day forward, military animals, including K9 military dogs, would be ineligible for military awards or decorations.

While numerous military working dog handlers and various military working dog advocates and groups have tried to lobby for a change in the policy, the no medals for dogs directive remains in effect.

Frustrated, advocates of K9 military dogs have found a little solace from private groups. For example, several animal groups have created awards for bravery that have been presented to K9 military dogs who have served valiantly.

Lucca, an explosive detection dog serving in the U.S. Marine Corps lost a leg in Afghanistan to an IED explosion. She had completed hundreds of missions. A fellow combat wounded veteran gave the dog one of his Purple Heart medals, but it was presented to the dog unofficially. Lucca also earned a high level award from an animal group for her bravery.

Similarly, Lex, a K9 military dog injured in Iraq was presented an unofficial Purple Heart for sustaining injuries in an attack which killed his handler. Interestingly enough the unofficial award was presented by the same organization that had lodged the complaint about Chips getting a Purple Heart. Lex would get adopted by his handler’s family and he died of cancer in 2012.

It is important to note that Stubby, the famed World War I dog smuggled into the European theater by his handler, was not an official K9 military dog. However, the dog performed a variety of actions while in Europe and came home a highly decorated animal, long before dogs and other military animals were precluded from earning military awards or decorations.

K9 military dog advocates and animal groups today give out awards recognizing the bravery of animals, including K9 military dogs whose bravery and actions have been overlooked in the past. More and more, K9 military dogs are being looked upon as eligible candidates to receive military awards and decorations, but it seems as if little traction has been made since the 1940s decision to not recognize military animals with medals.

For those who have served with military animals, especially K9 military dogs, the policy is hard to understand given the sacrifice and duty of these brave dogs. Many of these animals have saved hundreds, if not thousands of lives during their tours of duty, but the Department of Defense does not seem to have a change in policy on the horizon.

Some good changes that have come in recent years is that some K9 military dogs are now allowed to be adopted instead of being euthanized when they are no longer able to perform their jobs. In addition, the K9 military dogs have been brought home unlike in the Vietnam War where hundreds of K9 military dogs were abandoned and left to die.

While K9 military dogs might not be eligible to formally and officially receive U.S. military decorations, at least strides have been made to bring them home from the battlefield and give them a good life after they are retired from the military.

Thanks to the passage of Robby’s Law in 2000, all retired K9 military dogs are now allowed to be adopted and about 90 percent are adopted by current or former handlers.

Today, the only reasons a K9 military dog may be euthanized is due to terminal illness or extreme aggression, but intense efforts are made to find them an adopted home. 

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