Animals In and Of Service
By Angela Ohm
Animals In and Of Service
Bomb sniffing dogs may be the first military animal you think of, but you must broaden your horizons to the sky and the sea to get a fuller picture of the animals who serve in our armed forces or are studied by military researchers to discover better ways to perform valuable tasks, like finding bombs. For example, the United States (U.S.) Army Research Office has looked into how elephants sniff out explosives. The U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program “…trains bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions to detect, locate, mark and recover objects in harbors, coastal areas, and at depth in the open sea.” The objects they locate even include unauthorized humans near Navy interests. Pack animals, including mules and donkeys, have assisted Special Operations troops in areas where logistical support from traditional units doesn’t exist. The use of pigeons to deliver messages and conduct overhead reconnaissance was a common practice in both World Wars: there is excellent information regarding their use in spy craft at the International Spy Museum.
Of course, as the view of animals in our society has evolved, so has our thinking of what is ethical treatment of them. Veterinarians and trained handlers are now involved to ensure that working animals’ needs are met. Groups like the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine work with the military to make combat training more humane. Combat type injuries are inflicted on thousands of goats and pigs each year, but this is now being phased out by high-tech simulators modeled on human anatomy and supervised experience dealing with trauma patients.
While the heroism of animals has been recognized in the United Kingdom (U.K.) since at least 1943, it’s only recently that a similar effort began here. In 2019, a Belgian Malinois named Bass, who served more than six years in Marine Corps special operations and conducted over 350 explosive detections with his handler, was awarded the Animals in War and Peace Medal of Bravery. The award, issued by Angels Without Wings, was the first of its kind in the U.S. and was issued by the nonprofit to formally acknowledge the bravery of Bass and other animals who serve at home and abroad. Other dogs, two pigeons, and a horse (Staff Sergeant Reckless) also received the honor that day. Robin Hutton, the President of Angels Without Wings, started this program after learning of the Dickin Medal in the U.K., which was created in 1943 (and has also honored eight American animals). Through her work on a book about Staff Sergeant Reckless, a U.S. Marine horse who served as an ammunitions carrier during the Korean War, she had become passionately committed to the cause of honoring animals who served. According to Ms. Hutton, people who think animals do what they do simply because they are trained are wrong—they do it for their handlers, their fellow soldiers. Because of that relationship, “through the eyes of animals we learn about the people who served with them.”
A second award ceremony was scheduled for September 30, 2020, but was postponed due to Covid-19. According to Ms. Hutton, they’ve reached out to all branches of service for nominees, conferred with those involved with past nominees, and asked for input on social media. Forms are available on their website: animals both living and deceased are eligible. According to Mari Lou Livingood, who serves on their Medals Nominating Board, animals must be retired to receive the awards, because the information that goes into their selection would reveal too much information about their handlers. Through Angels without Wings and associated programs, there are also five monuments to Sergeant Reckless, including ones at the National Museum of the Marine Corps and the National Cowgirl Museum, and more monuments and a Distinguished Service Medal are in the works. They are also exploring the possibility of creating an International War Animals Museum to further honor these animals and educate people about their service.
Not only do animals serve with our soldiers on the battlefield, they continue to help soldiers recover from their physical and mental wounds once they’re back home. Dogs are most commonly used, but pigs, cats, monkeys, birds, and horses have assisted individuals with disabilities. According to the Disabled American Veterans, there are three types of assistance animals — service, therapy, and emotional support—they perform different tasks and have different legal protection. Service animals are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), assist a single person, and may fly with their owners and live with them regardless of pet policies. Therapy animals provide emotional support to a number of people in different settings (such as hospitals or nursing homes) and are not covered by the ADA. Emotional support animals provide emotional comfort and may live with their owners despite pet policies and fly with them with certain documentation and notice, but aren’t covered by the ADA.
Groups like K9s for Warriors, the nation’s largest provider of service dogs to military veterans suffering from PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury and/or Military Sexual trauma, help veterans get service animals to manage their health concerns. K9s for Warriors provides accredited service dogs at no cost to veterans. About 90% of their dogs come from shelters or are owner-surrendered: they “rescue dogs to rescue veterans.” They accept applications from servicemembers who became disabled while in service on or after September 11, 2001, but the disability does not have to be combat-related. After the application process, the veteran completes a three-week training program with their dog. It may even be possible for veterans to get help with veterinary healthy benefits for mental health mobility service dogs under the Department of Veterans Affairs Mental Healthy Mobility Service Dog Initiative.
Whether working along-side solders to guide them on the battlefield or with veterans to lead them back to health, animals are a valuable component of our nation’s defense and care of its wounded. Happy Veterans Day to them and their fellow human veterans!
Angela June Ohm lives in Arlington with her two rescue cats Gillian, a domestic shorthair with precious fangs, and Josephine, a Norwegian Forest Cat.