Not every superhero can fly, but now some of our nation’s greatest action figures – America’s war dogs – may finally get a free plane ride home after serving their country, thanks to a long-awaited change to the National Defense Authorization Act which has just passed in both the House and the Senate and awaits the president’s signature.
As a war dog advocate, I can personally attest to what this victory means for both two- and four-legged veterans, and millions more have learned about the power of the bond between America’s heroes on both ends of the leash this summer with the heartwarming war dog movie, “Max.” And I hope President Obama, to whose desk this bill will now go for signature, was one of those millions, as justice for these faithful warriors is long overdue.
America’s military working dogs are superheroes who save lives on the battlefield and on the home front.
Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle agree that we must honor their service and ensure that they return home and make every effort to reunite them with their military handlers.
The bond between Matty and Brent was born in the United States Army, forged in combat, and sealed in the blood in Afghanistan and will never be broken.
It is estimated that each military working dog saves the lives of between 150-200 service members. That means more sons and daughters are returning home from service in dangerous combat zones because a highly trained dog found weapon caches, enemy positions and serious threats.
The enemy knows the value of these dogs – the Taliban is known to shoot the dog first and the handler next, as that takes out a line of defense.
Airfields can’t evn be cleared when there is no canine team on the ground.
Marine Corporal Jeff DeYoung remembers being identified by villagers in Afghanistan as “the dog man” as he handled Military Working Dog Cena – and he knew he was a target. These teams are battle buddies, with bonds forged in combat.
A military dog is a soldier’s best friend.
Most military working dogs do find their way back to American soil, but there are cases where military dogs are retired at bases overseas, or left for adoption or euthanasia on foreign soil. While the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2014 authorized the transfer of a retiring military working dog if no suitable adopter is available at the military facility where the dog is located, the language says “may transfer” rather than “shall transfer.”
The fact is that if a military working dog is retired in a non-combat zone overseas, that dog becomes a civilian and cannot travel on military transport. And their handlers who care about them most and often need their battle buddies to help them make the transition back to civilian life were not guaranteed first right of adoption.
That is until now, as the bill was just voted on by both the House and the Senate, approving amendments provided by New Jersey Republican Rep. Frank LoBiondo and Missouri Democrat Senator Claire McCaskill.
Case in point is Military Working Dog Matty, who was reunited with Army Specialist Brent Grommet in November 2014 thanks to the work of American Humane Association, members of the media and Republican Rep. Richard Hudson of North Carolina.
As Brent’s mom Debbie shared with me, Matty helped her son in a way only soldiers know how to do. Together they trained, together they protected each other, and together they went to hell and back.
One of them stayed awake while the other slept. They watched each other’s backs, alerting each other to immediate life-threatening danger.
As soldiers, they did what soldiers do; they fought battles, cleared roads, lost 17 friends and were injured together.
They won’t speak of their deployment to others, only to each other. But late at night in a nightmare that only those who suffer from the invisible wounds of war understand, Brent gets a nudge from a wet nose to say “I’m here and it’s okay.” And when Matty’s legs twitch and he whimpers, another victim of PTS, it takes a soft word from Brent to let his battle buddy know that it’s all okay.
When they arrived home from Afghanistan, Brent remembers every painful detail.
Due to standard military procedure they were to be given 10 minutes to say goodbye. At that point in time, Matty didn’t know what was going on.
Brent did however, he felt as though a huge part of him had been ripped apart.
Matty was placed in a metal cage. As soon as the door closed, Brent heard something he had never heard before; his battle buddy Matty was screaming while frantically trying to dig his way out of the metal cage.Then Matty started to bite at the door.
As I watched the movie “Max,” I saw this scene play out again on the big screen.
This bond with Matty and Brent was born in the United States Army, forged in combat, and sealed in the blood in Afghanistan and will never be broken.
Mr. President, please do the right thing by these heroes and finish the job by signing the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act into law. Then every one of our superheroes will be able to flly home to a hero’s welcome and a loving, forever home.
Robin R. Ganzert, Ph.D, is president and CEO of the American Humane Association.