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We Interview the People Behind the First U.S. National Monument to Military Dogs

A float in the Rose Parade was a floral re-creation of the massive sculpture to be dedicated this fall.

 |  Jan 9th 2013  |   11 Contributions


If you watched the Rose Parade on New Year's Day, you probably saw the Canines with Courage float that was dedicated to military working dogs. It was sponsored by Natural Balance Pet Food, and it was modeled after the Military Working Dog Teams National Monument, which is scheduled to be dedicated in the fall. The float and monument honor American military dogs in World War II as well as the conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

I went behind the scenes and interviewed the people involved with creating the float, and I also met some of today's military handlers and their dogs -- and I got to see the massive bronze sculpture representing the working dog teams.

I was amazed by the passion I saw in John Burnam, a decorated war veteran, scout handler, and founder of John Burnam Monument Foundation as well as Joey Herrick, president of Natural Balance Pet Food. Both men worked hard to make this memorial come to fruition, each accomplishing their goals for the monument in their own ways.

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The Canines with Courage float. (All photos by Cori Solomon)

“Riding on the float humbled me," said Burnam, his eyes beaming with pride, "seeing people standing and clapping, the mass of people was an experience that only happens once in a lifetime. I am honored to be part of this national monument.”

The completion of the bronze sculpture on Christmas Eve and the float in the parade on New Year's Day represented a culmination of what Burnam has accomplished thus far. His military career began during the Vietnam War, where he volunteered for the 44 Scout Dog Platoon. There he was united with Scout dogs Timber and Clipper, whose memories inspired him to move forward with the memorial.

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Gabe, a military Labrador, relaxes on the float.

During war times, dogs are used as scouts, sentries, and trackers, and for search and rescue. Scout dogs like Timber or Clipper are trained to be alert to foreign sounds and smells. A scout dog works out in front of the patrols, the handler just behind watching the dogs body language at all times. Just behind are two bodyguards who protect the handler.

Right after the war, Burnam put his memories of the conflict behind him, but in 1991 he wrote a personal account of being a military dog handler. This book, Dog Tags of Courage, was followed by a second, A Soldier’s Best Friend. From this experience, in 2001, the idea of a national monument was launched.

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Joey Herrick is president of Natural Balance.

As Burnam talked of his experiences in Vietnam I heard the pain that he felt for his dogs and for all dogs left behind after the U.S. left the country. Military dogs are treated as equipment and were left behind. Some dogs were released to unfortunate circumstances. These handlers bond tightly to their dogs, as they become best friends and partners. Leaving their working dogs and friend behind can be devastating.

Burnam was encouraged when, in 2000, President Clinton signed a bill permitting military dogs to be adopted. Today a military veterinarian approves the home placement of military dogs after they are retired from duty.

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John Burnam

Getting the national monument planned and built took a great deal of work by Burnam. National monuments need congressional approval, and it took six years before U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones of North Carolina introduced legislation that established a such as work honoring American working dog teams. President Bush signed the law in January 2008, and later President Obama authorized the John Burnam Monument Foundation to build and maintain the work.

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Lucca is an 8-year-old German Shepherd wounded in Afghanistan.
 

I asked why the monument was not on the placed National Mall in Washington, D.C., and Burnam said that unfortunately it does not meet the criteria for monuments to be placed there. When organizers could find no place near the National Mall, they decided to erect it at a military location, and what better place than Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, TX, the military training facility of all working dog teams.

In 2010 Burnam met Herrick of Natural Balance, who became the official sponsor. It is through Herrick's vision that the float and idea of touring the sculpture around the country evolved.

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Paula Slater

Burnam chose sculptress Paula Slater to create the immense work depicting a military handler, a Doberman Pinscher, Labrador Retriever, German Shepherd, and Belgian Malinois. Slater said she reviewed pictures of the breeds, met with breeders, and examined dogs so she could understand the nuances of each dog. Slater said she was to represent dogs of the Vietnam era.

The first dog was the Doberman, she said, and it was the most difficult. Next was the German Shepherd, which was also a challenge because the American German Shepherd today is quite different than the dogs used by the military in Vietnam. Having owned a Labrador made that sculpture easiest for Slater.

As an animal artist myself, viewing the majestic bronzes of these breeds made it clear Slater had accomplished her goal. It is a testament to her work that I was drawn to touch, feel, and pet the bronze lifelike dogs as if they were real.

During my visit I also met Sgt. 1st Class Charles Shuck and Gabe, a retired 10-year-old Labrador who worked for the Army. I also met Gunnery Sgt. Christopher Willingham and Cpl. Juan Rodriguez of the Marine Corps, who were both handlers of Lucca, an 8-year-old German Shepherd wounded in Afghanistan. From the Navy there was Master At Arms 3rd Class Nickolas Cody Aloi with Sunny, a 7-year-old German Shepherd.

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Sculptress Paula Slater with Sgt. Christopher Willingham (left) and Cpl. Juan Rodriguez.

Shuck worked with Gabe in 2006. Gabe was trained as a specialized search dog who helped locate weapons and ammunition. After five months together they were deployed to Iraq. Gabe’s successes include participating in 210 missions with 26 finds and earning 40 awards and coins of excellence. In 2008 Gabe was selected as the AKC Heroic Military Working Dog. In 2012 Gabe was the AHA American Hero Dog. Shuck has now adopted Gabe. For Shuck, “riding on this float is supporting military dogs now, and it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I will not forget.”

Many have heard Lucca’s story, but after meeting him I saw a spirited loving dog even with the handicap of having three legs. Lucca lives in Helsinki, Finland, with his first team partner Willingham. Lucca spent five years working with Willingham and 18 months with Rodriguez. I asked Rodriquez what it was like when Lucca was injured the bomb.

” I was mentally in shock," he said. "Medically I knew what to do, but you don’t think this will happen to you.”

When a military working dog is injured, the dog's handler stays with him from the time of injury through surgery to, in Lucca’s case, returning to Camp Pendleton.

I found a central theme when I spoke with these military handlers. Asked what was the most memorable moment from working with the dogs, each said that it came during their first week, when their dog located a bomb, made the first find, or found the first improvised explosive device. At that moment, the handlers said, all the training and work they had done as a team came together, firmly establishing their partnership.

“It was the moment that validated us as a team,” Willingham said. 

“Our training comes full circle because there is full trust as a team," added Rodriguez.

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Sunny

The handlers said the working dogs gave unconditional love to the troops when one of their comrades was lost in battle. These dogs are soldiers’ mascots, bringing the fighting men and women peace of mind by providing comfort. The dogs all know the difference of when they are comforting versus working.

Burnam said the Military Working Dog Teams National Monument is his way of giving back to animals, especially Timber and Clipper, who are so dear to his heart. The monument is scheduled to be dedicated in October.

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