Hill lawmakers seek to help military dogs, advocates want more

U.S. Air Force / Master Sgt. Cecilio Ricardo

 (U.S. Air Force / Master Sgt. Cecilio Ricardo)

Capitol Hill lawmakers are trying to help military service dogs finished with active duty by giving them full health benefits and streamlining their adoption process. But advocacy groups say the legislation should go further by giving the animals a return flight to U.S. soil, just like the soldiers they joined in combat.

The Canine Members of the Armed Forces Act has been introduced in the House by Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-N.C., and in the Senate by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and now awaits hearings.

Right now, the Defense Department classifies military work dogs as equipment, which means service units or prospective adoption families must pay to have the animals brought home from abroad, which from Europe can cost more than $1,000.

If approved, the bill would streamline the adoption process and create a program in which donations would pay for commercial air travel for dogs that have no awaiting, adoptive family.

"There is no real structure in place now for people to adopt," a Blumenthal aide said.

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Debbie Kandoll of the Military Work Dog Adoption group, who favors the legislation, said it can go further. Animals could be returned on cargo flights at little cost to the government.

"It's great if they want to do commercial airlines or frequent flier miles, but the military's first line or responsibility is to get these dogs home," Kandoll told FoxNews.com. "They will always and forever be a military veterans. It's degrading for the dogs to be considered excess equipment when they served to selflessly and nobly."

Kandoll said many families considering adoption cannot afford overseas transportation in addition to the medical procedures many of the dogs will incur as a result of the duties, which has included sniffing out roadside bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Sometimes these health costs could be thousands of dollars," said Ron Aiello of the U.S. War Dogs Association, which also supports the legislation.

According to the legislation, dogs that have no awaiting family would return to Lackland Air Force Base, in San Antonio, Texas, home to the 341st Training Squadron, the training school for dogs and handlers for the entire military.

The military also maintains about 200 kennels worldwide. Currently, the adoption wait for a retired working military dog is about one year, according to Lackland base spokesman Gerry Proctor, who said reports claiming the military is abandoning old or retired dogs or puts them down rather than adopting them out are overstated.

Proctor added that the possibility a dog would finish its military service and be shipped to Lackland because it had no waiting home would be "extremely rare."

Dog handlers get first priority, and sometimes the dogs are still in good enough shape after military duty to work for a municipal police force before full retirement, Proctor said.

He did not have the exact cost for shipping home a dog but downplayed published reports that the cost is in the thousands.

With recent reporting that even handlers have had trouble getting their dogs to join them at home, especially those that are old, retired or infirm, the bill also directs the secretary of Defense to award a contract to a private, nonprofit group that would establish a system of veterinary care for the dogs

"These dogs deserve their loyalty and dedication to be returned when they are home," Blumenthal said in a recently issued press statement.

Jones called the dogs "crucial assets" that have "saved countless American lives during the past decade of conflict." He has tried for years to get a national memorial built for the dogs.