Military dog advocates want dogs to be classified as "K-9 members of the armed forces" instead of "equipment"
There are about 2,700 dogs serving worldwide, according to the Defense Department. Roughly 600 of these dogs are deployed in designated war zones overseas, including Afghanistan, areas of Africa and Kuwait.
But while these dogs walk side by side with their troop handlers or go on jumps from helicopters in service members' arms, the Defense Department classifies military working dogs as "equipment," a term that advocates want changed.
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Dogs have been serving in military conflicts since World War I, returning home after the conflicts ended. But thousands of dogs were left behind during the Vietnam War. Of the roughly 4,900 dogs that the United States used in Vietnam, around 2,700 were turned over to the South Vietnamese army, and a staggering 1,600 were euthanized, according to veteran and former Marine dog handler Ron Aiello.
"Equipment you can leave behind," Kandoll said. "We've left tanks in Iraq. Everywhere we've been, we've left stuff. If you reclassify them as manpower, then you can't leave them."
Today, dogs are no longer left in war zones. In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed a law that allowed the dogs to be adopted by former handlers, law enforcement agencies and civilians. But Kandoll says this law didn't go far enough and is pushing for an amendment to include the reclassification of war dogs.
U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R-North Carolina, agrees that a new classification is needed to elevate the "solider dog." Jones has been working on a bill that would reclassify the dogs as "K-9 members of the armed forces" and provide a way for the Defense Department to honor the dogs with official medals.
"Those who have been to war tell me that the dogs are invaluable," he said. "That they are just as much a part of a unit as a soldier or Marine. They are buddies."
Jones has submitted the proposed legislation to the Congressional Budget Office for a cost review. A response is expected by mid-February.
Despite the classification, the military says the dogs are respected.
"While there is a proper, legal classification for a working dog, we know they are living things, and we have great respect and admiration for them," said Lackland Air Force Base spokesman Gerry Proctor. The dogs are trained at Lackland. "A handler would never speak of their dog as a piece of equipment. The dog is their partner. You can walk away from a damaged tank, but not your dog. Never."
But if the dogs are retired on an overseas base, the military will not provide for their transportation back home, a practice that Kandoll says is like leaving them behind.
"The day the dog is retired, the dog is considered excess equipment and not entitled to any transport back," she said.
When a dog is retired on an overseas base and is adopted by someone in the United States, the adopter is charged the dog's shipping cost, which can be up to $2,000.
"It is essentially the same as a government surplus sale," Proctor said. "If the government has a surplus sale in Ramstein, Germany, and sells you a truck, then should the American taxpayer be on the hook to get that truck back to your house in Atlanta? The government doesn't own it once you buy it."