Dogs are rightfully considered to be man’s best friend, and those brave canines who follow their owners into combat zones give the title a heightened meaning. Foreign Policy’s senior editor of special projects, Rebecca Frankel, has been writing a column about war dogs since 2010 and recently took her passion for the animals a step further by publishing her first book: War Dogs. In it, she recounts the growing relationship between the military and the skilled dogs who lead patrols, sniff out bombs, and even provide soldiers with therapy. Here, Frankel shares the stories of the five dogs that left the biggest impact on her.
Chips, World War II
Chips’s was one the first stories I encountered back when I started writing about military dogs in 2010. Chips received a lot of media attention during the war—making multiple newspaper headlines during the fighting in 1944. He overtook machine gunners, withstanding their attempts to fend him off. At one point the enemy soldiers even shot at him. But for all Chips’s bravery and spunk, his wartime heroics are not what stayed with me (though the anecdote that he had bitten General Eisenhower certainly did). Like most of the dogs who fought for the United States during World War II, Chips was “drafted”— donated to the fight by the family that owned him, the Wrens of Pleasantville, NY. Being a feisty young dog and something of a troublemaker, the family thought he’d do well in war and they were right. But the part of the story that I remember best is how Chips was very protective of the Wrens’s young daughter, Gail. There’s something about knowing that he used to follow her to school to keep watch over her that made him, at least to me, a more intriguing dog.
Judy, World War II
Hands down, Judy has the most riveting and harrowing story of any war dog I’ve come across—one that spans not just a few battles, but years. Originally a mascot for a ship with the British Royal Navy, the English Pointer ended up in a Japanese POW camp where she became the only dog in history to be officially declared a Prisoner of War. Aircraftman Frank Williams, also a POW at the camp, took Judy under his wing, sharing his food with her on their first official meeting and winning forever her unflagging loyalty. She was uncommonly brave—even by war dogs standards; She was known to attack any guard who would beat a prisoner, even though time and time again she usually ended up enduring the brunt of the flogging. After a shipwreck she stayed in the water, swimming through fire and debris to rescue the men in the water. Because she wasn’t a U.S. war dog I didn’t write about her in the book (though I, happily, found the opportunity to do so elsewhere), but hers is a story not to be missed.
Stormy, Vietnam War
Stormy came alive to me in my conversations with her former handler, Ron Aiello, who deployed with her to Vietnam. He related their time in combat—even the more gritty and gruesome experiences—with a certain amount of joy that I think came purely from reminiscing about his dog and how much he had loved her. As a German shepherd, she wasn’t a very big dog but could be very threatening, especially when it came to protecting her handler. Aiello says that had it not been for Stormy, he would’ve returned from his time in Vietnam a very different man—a less whole version of himself. A detail that stands out from Aiello’s stories is that the night before the handlers shipped out, leaving the dogs to the new handlers just coming in, nearly all of them spent that night sleeping on the ground outside in the kennels so they could be close to their dogs.
Boe, Iraq War
This is not your typical war dog. Boe, a black Labrador who deployed to Iraq in 2009, is a therapy dog. Part of an innovative program run by the Army, Boe and her handler Captain Celia Nejera deployed together as a Combat Operations Stress Control (COSC) team. They were part of an initiative that put therapy dogs in combat as a way of alleviating tension and perhaps reducing the chance of PTSD. The idea was to prevent PTSD as the wars were actually happening, rather than waiting until service men and women returned from their tours. Boe’s 15 months in Iraq, and the positive impact her handler reported, are testament to a dog’s ability not only to lighten moods, but also to make a significant difference in how humans cope with life in a warzone.
Eli, War in Afghanistan
Eli, the big black Labrador who was the bomb-sniffing dog of Marine LCpl Colton Rusk, has undoubtedly stayed in the mind of anyone who’s read about him. When Rusk was shot by a Taliban sniper, Eli crawled on top of Rusk’s fallen body to protect him. Rusk didn’t survive, but upon Eli’s return from Afghanistan, the Rusk family adopted Eli and brought him home. Rusk’s mother, Kathy, talked to me about the difference it made to the family, while they were grieving over their lost son and brother, to have his dog and former partner with them. The dog has brought them comfort and a living piece of their son. Eli needs their love and attention and that, in and of itself, is its own kind of happy purpose.
Rebecca Frankel is the senior editor for special projects at Foreign Policy and author of War Dogs: Tales of Canine Heroism, History, and Love.