“Gina was a playful 2-year-old German shepherd when she went to Iraq as a highly trained bomb-sniffing dog with the military, conducting door-to-door searches and witnessing all sorts of noisy explosions. She returned home to Colorado cowering and fearful. When her handlers tried to take her into a building, she would stiffen her legs and resist. Once inside, she would tuck her tail beneath her body and slink along the floor. She would hide under furniture or in a corner to avoid people.” (Dan Elliot, AP, 8/3/10)
Dogface Gina, who served a six-month tour in Iraq, has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder by a military veterinarian. Upon returning home to Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, “she was terrified of everybody.” Tufts professor Nicholas Dodman: “There is a condition in dogs which is almost precisely the same, if not precisely the same, as PTSD in humans.” Some, Dodman says, are offended by assigning an emotionally-charged diagnosis for soldiers to a dog. Psychologist Jack Saul (Columbia) is one who’d rather reserve the condition for humans, yet admits: (CBS13, 8/3/10) “That’s not to say that animals can’t be traumatized. It sounds like this dog was traumatized from the experience of extreme stress and fear. That causes an alteration in the animal’s nervous system similar to an alteration of the nervous system in humans.” Science is science. If it looks, sounds, and feels like PTSD, then that’s exactly what it is.
The once “lovable dog” who could be held like a baby had “withdrawn from society as a whole” and was frightened to even enter doorways. She was retrained and has since resumed duties (searching for explosives) in Colorado with an eye towards possible redeployment. But, as Professor Dodman soberly reminds, “It’s a fact that fears once learned are never unlearned.”
The K-9 Corps was established shortly after Pearl Harbor. Patriotic citizens (some of whom would later receive certificates of commendation) volunteered their dogs by the thousands (10,000 to be exact, 4,000 in Vietnam). They serve as searchers (for casualties and explosives), sentries, scouts, and messengers. The vast majority are German or Belgian Shepherds purchased from European breeders. All are trained (five months) at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas (National Geographic). Owing to a law change in 2000, the discharged warriors can now be adopted rather than face certain euthanasia. Lackland commander Major Frank Schaddelee: “They’re good soldiers and served their country well. We want to see them get a good retirement package.”
The Military is proud of their canine comrades, and special (even, loving) bonds are forged between handlers and dogs. In an Army Times article, a marine tells of pressing his finger to his partner’s (Flapoor) bleeding chest after the pair were injured by a suicide bomb in Iraq: “I didn’t care about my injuries, my arm. I’m telling the medic, ‘I got to get my dog to the vet!’” And he remembers another wounded dog stretched out over his handler’s dead body, protecting till the end. With around 2,000 currently deployed, “dozens…have also become war wounded — scorched by the desert, slashed by broken glass, pelted by stray bullets, pounded by roadside bombs.” And killed. Cpl. Kory Wiens and his partner, Cooper (whom Wiens referred to as his son), were felled by an Iraqi IED in 2007. They were buried together.
The dogs receive exceptional veterinary care (root canals, battlefield surgery), and, relative to the millions of dogs languishing in American homes and cages, superior treatment. Still, their larger purpose cannot be ignored. Sgt. Douglas Timberlake: “As much as I love these dogs, their job is to take a bullet for me.” And that, patriotic fervor aside, is the heart of the problem. Inescapably, this remains exploitation of the weaker. We use them because we can. Drafted as nonconsensual enemy combatants, they are forced into a uniquely human tragedy and made to endure horrific injuries, emotional scars, and violent deaths.
Would it be morally acceptable to use a mentally enfeebled human being (say, with exceptional olfactory capabilities) in this manner? If not (of course), then why? We use(d) Gina, Flapoor, and Cooper because they are extremely intelligent and loyal. But that cognitive awareness makes the trauma that much more heartrending. Creating PTSD in dogs should be an affront to all caring people. War, man’s most obscene creation, should be waged by man alone. Leave the dog tags to the soldiers; let the dogs be.