Vietnam War Dogs: Heroes Left Behind

Vietnam War dogs became famous in history for saving thousands of lives, then being left behind when US troops pulled out. This outraged many, causing a policy change so it never happens again.

Soldier and scout dog

The Vietnam War was America's most unpopular war, and over 58,000 Americans died. These numbers do not include the American dogs who bravely fought in the war, serving in all four branches of the military. About 4,000 dogs served during the course of the war, and roughly a thousand of these dogs died from direct gunfire, booby traps, accidents, heat stress, snake bites, disease and old age. Only 204 dogs exited Vietnam during the ten year period. Some remained in the Pacific, and some returned to the US. None returned to civilian life. All of the other surviving dogs, considered surplus equipment, were left behind when US troops made their hasty withdrawal from Vietnam. The dogs were either euthanized or given to the South Vietnamese Army who were not trained to handle the dogs.

Dogs have been playing important roles on the battlefield for centuries. Vietnam War dogs performed various tasks: Scout dogs were used to walk ahead of patrols looking for dangers like ambushes and booby traps. Sentry dogs were used to defend camps and other priority areas. Tracker dogs were used to follow the trail of enemies and to locate missing personnel like downed pilots and wounded GIs. Mine/Booby/Tunnel dogs were used to detect devices like mines, trip wires and booby traps, and underground tunnels housing Viet Cong soldiers. They were also used to search villages and suspected areas of enemy built up supplies and weapons. During the Vietnam War, the dogs and their handlers were credited with saving over 10,000 lives. These heroic war dogs were so effective with their jobs, the Viet Cong offered bounties for killing the dogs and their handlers.

Despite pleas from dog handlers who wanted to take their dogs home with them - they were even willing to pay for the dog's flight home themselves despite their meager wages - the military would not permit it. Rick Claggett, a former dog handler, said his Scout dog Big Boy helped him cope with the stress of war, and he will never forget having to leave him behind - he feels the South Vietnamese had no affection for the dogs left behind (even though the dogs helped save their lives too) and, because of their culture, they probably used the dogs as a source of food. Fred Dorr, another former handler, said leaving his Scout dog Sarge behind haunted him. "A lot of us (handlers) suffered PTSD," referring to post-traumatic stress disorder. "It's like leaving your kid back there."

The worth of dogs in the military had been proven in World War I when dogs borrowed from the French and British served as guard dogs and messengers, and assisted the Red Cross by finding the wounded on battlefields. However, the American K9 corps really began during World War II, shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack. Thousands of dogs were donated by American civilians to participate in the war. At the end of the war, the dogs were sent back to their families or retired to live with their handlers. This practice changed by the time US forces entered Vietnam. Recognizing the value of dogs in the service, the military replaced volunteered dogs with professionals - belonging solely to the military, and considered surplus equipment.

Due to lobbying efforts by dog handlers from the Vietnam War and an outcry from people who later found out what had happened to these dogs, Congress enacted a piece of legislation known as the Robby Law in 2000. The purpose is to facilitate the adoption of retired military working dogs by military and civilian adopters. What happened to those brave and dedicated Vietnam War dogs should never happen again.