This Monday is Memorial Day, when many of us will spend a nice long weekend with our families hanging out at the beach, having a picnic in the park, or grilling in the backyard. School's almost out and summer's almost here. Sometimes in all the fun, it's easy to forget why we have this weekend in the first place -- because so many of the ones we love are not here to enjoy it.
Memorial Day began after the U.S. Civil War to honor the fallen soldiers. The last Monday of every May has been observed ever since to remember the men and women who gave their lives to protect our freedoms. I myself give great thanks to these amazing people who have made the ultimate sacrifice, and I would include in my gratitude the working dogs of the military.
Since ancient Egypt, dogs have been used during times of war and for other military uses. In World War I, they were used to deliver messages between units behind the lines. One of these dogs, Sergeant Stubby, became the first dog to be given a military rank, and received a national medal for his service. Dogs became used more and more in conflicts. Over 5,000 dogs served in Vietnam alone. They had a large presence in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and Cairo, a Belgian Malinois, joined Navy SEAL Team Six in the attack which killed Osama bin Laden.
Dogs have been able to provide valuable services to the military. With their powerful noses and compact sizes, they are able to accomplish things humans cannot. Their keen hearing makes them excellent sentries. Our men and women in uniform can sleep soundly knowing that their canine comrades will alert them if danger approaches.
Dogs are able to use the same skills they use at home as police dogs. They are able to track scents, detect bombs, and find bodies. They also can be used as scouts, going ahead of the humans in their unit to look for enemy combatants, explosive devices, or other dangers that might wait for them.
Dogs have become such important parts of the unit, that army psychologists say that when the unit loses a canine member, the grief in the rest of the unit can be as great as when a human member is lost. Dogs and their handlers become so bonded, that often upon discharge they live out their civilian lives together. Other soldier dogs transition to military hospitals upon retirement where they can serve as helpers or companions to the injured.
Many people might pity the dogs, who obviously don't have much choice in the matter. They don't join ROTC or go to a recruiting office. However, I've always believed that dogs who have a purpose thrive. Whether it's herding sheep, leading the blind, or aiding the police, these dogs live fulfilling lives. Dogs have always bonded with humans and the bond that is formed in wartime is very powerful for the dogs and the humans.
This is not to say that these dogs don't face the same issues that their human counterparts face. Many dogs have to deal with the constant stress of being in the field and the workload can burn many of them out. Dogs also experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which has only recently been studied and treated and they often face great obstacles adjusting to a civilian life.
I was honored recently to be asked by the U.S. military to help out an Alaskan National Guard K-9 Unit that was being used to sniff out bombs on the supply route between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Unfortunately that trip had to be canceled due to security concerns, but I hope to have the opportunity to work with military dogs again in the near future.
These dogs have saved countless human lives, sometimes at the expense of their own. They are often the line in front of the front line. And often, they are the first casualties. For every hero like Sergeant Stubby or Cairo, there are thousands of dogs whose names we've forgotten, or never knew, who have given their lives so their human comrades could live.
I hope everyone has a wonderful Memorial Day weekend. It's a great time to be outdoors with your family and your dogs and enjoy the blessings our country has been given. I hope you all take a moment to remember the brave women and men who have given us this gift. And when you play fetch or throw a Frisbee with your dog, I hope you remember all the dogs that gave their lives so that you can.
Stay calm and assertive,
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