Military German Shepherd

Although Cpl. Dustin Lee died from his injuries in Iraq, while he lie wounded in the dust after the insurgent rocket attack that later took his life, his shrapnel-filled equipment managed to drag itself over to his body and cover the soldier in an attempt to protect him.

Lee’s equipment was a German shepherd named Lex.

Officially, the U.S. military classifies military working dogs as “equipment.”

While they can no longer be simply abandoned in war zones – as happened after the United States pulled out quickly in Vietnam, leaving thousands of American service dogs at the mercy of the invading North Vietnamese, who had offered a bounty twice the size on the dogs’ heads as on their handlers – their classification as equipment still makes adoption, transportation back to the United States if they are retired overseas and funding for veterinary care complicated.

The Canine Members of the Armed Forces Act, introduced in the Senate as S. 2134 by Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, and in the House as H.R. 4103 by Congressman Walter Jones of North Carolina, seeks to reclassify these truly amazing animals from “equipment” to “canine members of the Armed Forces.”

Currently, if a canine soldier is retired on an overseas base, the dog is not entitled to transportation home. Most of these dogs are adopted, but the cost of flying them back to the United States – estimated to be about $2,000 – is paid by the adoptive family.

Another expense the military has decided these dedicated animal war heroes don’t deserve is veterinary care for the remainder of their lives. Many of these dogs, like their human companions, suffer greatly from post traumatic stress disorder.

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According to a  NY Times article on the subject, “more than 5 percent of the approximately 650 military dogs deployed by American combat forces are developing canine PTSD. Of those, about half are likely to be retired from service.”

So when our friends show signs that the human-created violent drama we are forcing them to engage in is affecting them, we retire them and leave them stranded and with no veterinary care. This new law will change all of that, as well as create a system to honor war dog heroes – dead and alive.

While the history of animal servitude is long, sad and largely overlooked – and surely unappreciated – the relationship between dogs and humans stands out as decidedly different.

Rather than acting as slaves whose natural behaviors are stolen from them in the name of human advancement, dogs demonstrate genuine enthusiasm to help humans. We can say it is in their nature. Unlike cows or chickens who were passive victims of domestication, researchers have theorized that dogs took an active role in their domestication.

A study published in the Journal of Neuroanthropology called the “Dog-human connection in evolution” described the human-dog relationship as unlike

“other dynamics of domestication, and that dogs themselves may have initiated a process that led to their eventual domestication by living commensally, or following along with humans and slowly adapting to life with our type, rather than by simply being the passive victims of human projects to dominate and shape animals.”

They watched us and recognized our similarities and the possibility of a symbiotic relationship – meaning they came, they saw, they stole our hearts. Researchers are now even arguing that although chimps share 99 percent of our DNA, domestic dogs are more closely related to humans in terms of behavior and cognitive skills.

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After 20,000 years of protecting us and our food animals from other predators, fighting in our wars, providing therapy to the sick and injured and giving us, above all things, the intense loyalty, devotion and love we so value in our own species, dogs deserve better than to be classified as mere “equipment.”

It is unlikely I would be sitting at this computer composing this ode to the divine canine were it not for their tireless devotion and assistance to humans. A BBC documentary rightly gave man’s best friend his due credit when it reported that “without that initial phase of dog domestication, civilization just wouldn’t have been possible.”

And the evolution of humans as the compassionate species that defines us would not have been possible had the wolf not chosen us as worthy companions. Discovery News reported that the evolutionary influence of dogs worked in two ways. Humans who shared genes for more compassion were more likely to take in abandoned wolf pups. The wolf pups then helped those compassionate humans by hunting and securing their homes, allowing them to prosper and reproduce.

So I guess dog lovers can say everyone else has our ancestors to thank for the comforts and security of civilization. And we all have dogs to thank for their fierce loyalty, unconditional love and unquestioning obedience even as we send them into the bowels of war. I never heard of any equipment pulling that off.

Email your senators to support the Canine Members of the Armed Forces Act.

Tina is a journalist and mother of three who's lived all her life in the South Bay of Los Angeles except for a two-year stint in the heart of Spain. She believes humans have the capacity to make this a beautiful world for all species to live, and mothers have a special charge to raise their children to enjoy, love and respect all creatures.

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