American Heroes: Animals at War

Around 200 B.C., Hannibal and his Carthaginian army executed an imaginable invasion when they left North Africa and crossed the Alps on their way to Rome. They brought with them a weapon most Europeans had never seen: elephants. Since the beginning of warfare, animals have accompanied soldiers on the battlefield. Even though technology has changed, this still holds true today for American warriors around the world.

In early July 2009, elements of the 4,000 strong 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, along with 650 Afghan soldiers, swept into Afghanistan's southern Helmand Province. Operation Khanjar ("Strike of the Sword") as it is called, is designed to clear and hold territory in this Taliban stronghold. Accompanying the U.S. forces are warriors you might not expect: dogs.

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Canines are deployed in both Afghanistan and Iraq. They help provide security and go on raids, but their most important role is to sniff out hidden and buried explosives. With the majority of U.S. casualties being inflicted by IEDs (improvised explosive devices), dogs with their amazing smell detection skills are invaluable. You can find military dogs and their handlers walking out front of a foot patrol to clear the path for their fellow soldiers.

Many military canine handlers affectionately give their dogs a rank, often one higher than their own. It is a way of showing respect for the work they do.

You can find other animals helping out the war effort in smaller ways. Some of the U.S. forward bases have families of cats that roam the compounds. Their main task is to keep rodents from infesting the bases. During the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom, U.S. Special Forces used horses and donkeys to transport themselves and their equipment in the rugged northern part of Afghanistan.

Some American units deploy with their own trained veterinarians. These specialists treat not only America's four-legged warriors, they also help with the mission of "winning hearts and minds." Civil affairs programs are used to create security and stability in the region, including VETCAPs (veterinary civil affairs program). Since the U.S. military operates in many parts of the world where livestock is vital to a family's livelihood, the effort to keep these animals healthy helps to build a positive relationship with local populations and to increase their quality of life.

— Andrew Stenner is a producer for "War Stories With Oliver North"