Canine compassion: Should military dogs be reunited with their human handlers?

Could an increased effort to match service dogs with their handlers help soldiers returning home?

Corporal Mark Webster/MoD/FILE/Reuters
FILE PHOTO- A photograph showing British soldier Lance Corporal Liam Tasker watching his military working dog Theo, a springer spaniel, during a training session in Camp Bastion, Afghanistan on February 10, 2011. Lance Corporal Tasker was shot dead in Afghanistan on March 1, 2011, and his dog died of a seizure shortly after. Lance Corporal Tasker was repatriated, and a cortege with his body passed through Wootton Bassett, in southern England on March 10, 2011.

Marine Jeff Young and his dog Cena were one of the first K9 units in the Marjah operation, the largest offensive to date in the War in Afghanistan, detecting improvised explosives amid heavy fighting in 2009 and 2010. 

And as Mr. Young experienced the stress of the front lines and lost friends, he leaned on Cena for support, the Free Beacon reported

After returning home, however, Young was separated from the animal that had accompanied him during the worst of his deployment. After returning to the US, Young battled severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for nearly five years. He says that he attempted suicide, and that he turned to alcohol and drugs.

“Through all of this I just wanted the dog back. I wanted him to be safe and be happy. To be found. I didn’t know anything about what happened to him," Young told the Free Beacon. 

Young's story illustrates the plight of many soldiers separated from their service dogs after returning home. 

Current military policy makes it difficult for returning service members to adopt the dogs they serve alongside. This motivated the American Humane Association (AHA) to partner with returning dog handlers to lobby Congress to amend this year’s National Defense Authorization Act to include language saying military working dogs shall be returned to the United States after their tours end — not that they only “may be returned,” which is how the law reads currently. 

“When [service dogs are] retired overseas, they’re civilian status. They can no longer fly in military transport,” Robin Ganzert, president and CEO of the AHA told the Free Beacon.

On April 14 and 15, the AHA and former military dog handlers met with staffers from the House of Representatives and Senate to discuss the matter and to encourage the military to give former handlers the first opportunity to adopt their former partners. 

“We’re asking that that change so they shall be brought home to the US so that we can help reunite those dogs when they’re already back on US soil,” Ms. Ganzert told the Free Beacon, and added that reuniting handlers with dogs can help both transition to home life. “It’s about healing both ends of the leash. It’s about compassion."

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have left scores of stray dogs and cats in their wakes. One British soldier serving in Afghanistan began caring for some of the dogs.

Pen Farthing was serving with the British Royal Marines in the town of Now Zad, Afghanistan when he and his colleagues broke up a dog fight. One of the dogs followed Farthing back to base. "Nowzad," filled a void in his life, Farthing told CNN.

"As the troop sergeant, I was there to motivate the guys and get them fired up again to go out and do the job. But no one was doing that for me," Farthing told CNN. "My time with this dog was a way of de-stressing, collecting my thoughts and popping my head back in the game."

This prompted Farthing to launch an organization dedicated to helping soldiers adopt stray dogs and cats they meet during their tours of duty. He started Nowzad Dogs to promote animal welfare in Afghanistan, and the group runs an animal clinic in Kabul. 

To date Nowzad dogs has reunited over 700 soldiers who served in Afghanistan with companion pets they encountered while serving, according to the group's website.

As for Young and Cena, their story has a happy ending.

After Young and Cena were separated in April of 2010, Cena's first owner gave him to an animal advocacy group that would broker his adoption to a civilian family. Then, a week before he was scheduled to be be adopted, Young was contacted the group and they let him adopt the dog instead. 

“He’s been living with me for close to a year now, and I’ve seen a nearly 80 percent reduction, personally, in my PTSD symptoms,” Young told the Free Beacon. "So, it’s been phenomenal having him because I can do things now. I can go to places and sporting events and places I usually wouldn’t be able to go like airports, just because it’s too many people. So, having him back, it’s been a huge lifesaver.”

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