Sunday, May 10, 2015

Republican objections effectively neutered a bill to care for military war dogs

Two years ago when I attended a reunion of my old Desert Storm-era Army unit, Co. B 326th Engineer Battalion, 101st Airborne Division, we were looking at where our old barracks once stood. The old cockroach-infested buildings had been torn down to make way for the new buildings now under construction. One of my fellow veterans who worked in construction on post told us the story that did not leave a dry eye amongst us, even with our hardened veteran hearts.

The story goes like this: The day demolition was to start, the military police (MPs) received a man at the front gate. He was in tears, and he had driven all night to get to Ft. Campbell before demolition of the 326th barracks began. He had to find the remains of the dog he went to Vietnam with, came home with, and buried at Ft. Campbell, before the demolition began. The MPs got him to the site of the barracks, the civilian construction workers stopped working, and they searched the battalion area for the remains of his dog. They never did find the remains—either his memory was faulty about where the remains were or too much earth had already been moved during construction.

Jump below the fold for more.

While I cannot verify this story as true and I heard it third hand, this story, like many war stories, likely has an element of truth to it but it also may just be an amalgamation of other  tales that got taller as the years went on.

But if I were to pick the one element of truth to this story, it would be the man's devotion to his dog, even in death. This loyalty is no wonder, because it is estimated that each military working dog (MWD) or contract working dog (CWD) saves the lives of between 150 and 200 service members. Military working dogs are highly trained animal counterparts to service members:

The dogs carry out a wide range of specialized duties for the military teams to which they are attached: With a sense of smell 40 times greater than a human’s, the dogs are trained to detect and identify both explosive material and hostile or hiding humans. The dogs are twice as fast as a fit human, so anyone trying to escape is not likely to outrun [a military working dog].
But what happens when a dog can no longer work due to age or injury? First, contrary to popular opinion, MWDs are not considered equipment by the military. Retired Col. Douglas Miller, the Department of Defense Military Working Dog program manager, discusses this "equipment" issue rather emphatically:
"We do not ever treat them like equipment," he said, "because you don’t feed and care for equipment, you don’t offer it 24-hour access to veterinary care." And, Miller added, "there is a bond, there is a relationship between that handler and that dog. That dog doesn’t go anywhere without his handler. It’s a team."
But even the best teams may not stay together—a handler may become injured, or may rotate to another duty station, or may leave the military. The MWD may have multiple handlers during his or her career. When it comes time for the dog to be retired, there is a process:
The dog is first put under review. This is an involved but expedited process that includes input from veterinarians, behaviorists, and guidance of that dog’s home station’s kennel master — the person familiar with that dog’s entire career. When it’s determined that the dog is in good health and is of suitable temperament for life as a house dog, the military reviews the candidates who want to adopt the dog — often times there is a long list of the dog’s former handlers who are ready and willing to take him home. ("Home" in this case being a private residence.)
This is where things get a little tricky, because when a handler adopts his MWD, the handler is responsible for transporting the dog to his or her residence, no matter where in the world the dog is, which can be incredibly difficult and expensive for a former handler. In 2012, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, and Rep. Walter Jones, a Republican from North Carolina, drafted the Canine Members of the Armed Services Act.
First, it would have required retired (and often far-flung) MWDs to be transported back to Lackland [Air Force Base in Texas] — or another suitable location — to be put up for adoption. Second, it would have established a veterinary-care system for retired MWDs. And third, it would have reclassified MWDs as “canine members of the armed services” rather than “equipment,” allowing dogs that performed great acts of courage or merit to be recognized and decorated for their service.
The veterinary care system would not have used any federal money. While it would have been run by the Department of Defense, it would have relied on a private network of nonprofit veterinary providers.
But that wasn't frugal enough for the Senate Armed Services Committee. According to a Senate staffer who asked to remain anonymous to avoid complicating future negotiations over this issue, "Republican objections" effectively neutered the bill.

Who is the villain in all of this? It's not known for sure, but it is assumed that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is responsible for revising the bill in such a way that it made essentially a toothless amendment to the 2013 National Defense Authorization Bill.

This leaves the former handlers who have a personal bond with these dogs on the hook for any veterinary care. Charlsie Hoffman, a Marine, adopted Baddy, her MWD, when he was retired and after she was discharged from the Marine Corps.

At every turn, Hoffman chose to keep Baddy alive. She stopped counting when her veterinary bills crossed the $35,000 mark. From a distance, it’s tempting to say that Hoffman should have given up earlier — that the costs outweighed the benefits or that she was putting her own needs above Baddy’s. But that’s not how these relationships work in real life — especially not for military working dogs and their handlers.

“Having an MWD as a partner is so much more profound than having a pet,” Hoffman explains. “They work for you so selflessly. The amount they do for this country is humbling. And they do it all without asking for anything in return. You want to go the extra mile for them because you know they would do the same for you. So early on, I decided I’d rather go into debt with Baddy alive than be alive and know that I put Baddy down because I couldn’t afford to take care of him. The idea that money would decide whether Baddy lived or died was unfathomable. I could never accept that.”

Loyalty. These dogs are loyal to their handlers, and their handlers, in return, are loyal to them. These dogs did not volunteer for military service. They did not volunteer for dangerous duty. In fact, they do not even know that what they do is dangerous. They do their jobs not for devotion to duty, not for their country, but for their handlers' approval, love, and affection. It is often said that you can judge a country by how it treats those who are most vulnerable. Military war dogs are vulnerable, with only their handlers to protect them after retirement. It is time for our government to step up and aid those who adopt these animals. The amount of money it would cost to provide veterinary care to this group of veterans for their animals is barely a drop in the bucket when compared to the amount of money pissed away by corporate tax breaks and loopholes, pointless weapons systems, and a bloated military industrial complex.

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