William Edelen: Dogs of Valor… Dogs of Eminence…

Toward the Mystery

In my 50 years of writing newspaper columns and essays, no other column has been such a “labor of love” as this one on the War Dogs of combat who brought many members of our fighting military home safely. My journey for this emotional and educational experience started with my personal friendship with world-renown sculptor, A. Thomas Schomberg and his wife Cynthia, who often attend my Sunday Symposium in Palm Springs. Thomas was the artist who did the War Dog Memorial in front of the Museum at March Air Force Base in Riverside, California.

It was built by the support of veterans and the public without one cent of government money, in an effort to honor each and every valiant war dog and their efforts to save lives and prevent countless casualties. In Tom’s own words: “It is to illustrate the sacrifice that these two figures have made under combat circumstances, and to illustrate the bond between humans and their canine friends.”

A veterinarian serving in Vietnam wrote: “Without these dogs there would be a lot more than 50,000 names on the Vietnam wall.” Dogs in warfare have a long history starting in ancient times. War dogs have been trained for combat and to be used as scouts, sentries and trackers. War dogs were used by Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Sarmatians, Slavs, Britons and Romans. Frederick the Great used dogs during the “seven years war” with Russia, and, of course, in  all American wars to the present day of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam. Captured Vietcong told of the fear and respect that they had for the dogs. The Vietcong even placed a bounty on lives of handlers and dogs. It has been estimated by the Pentagon that war dogs saved over 10,000 U.S.lives in Vietnam alone. Memorials to these magnificent dogs can be found from Ft. Benning, Georgia to the Marine Corps primary base in Quantico, Virginia.

As I write this column my memory goes into rewind, remembering the magical psychic relationship I have experienced with the dogs who have shared my 90 years of life with me. You can understand why my eyes were moist as I spent a day recently at this outstanding War Dog Memorial at March Air Force Base, and with the moving and beautiful displays as tributes to these brave and loyal dogs inside the Museum. As a Marine Corps pilot for 12 years, when I came to the tribute of the Marines at Camp Pendleton, my moist eyes added an extra light tear.

Cynthia Schomberg wrote me recently of that magical day of 2000 when the March Field Memorial was dedicated. “Immediately after the large black cloth was removed from the War Dog Memorial, a row of 50 to 75 “service military dogs” with their trainers walked in a single column from the back of the audience around the side to the front where the statue stood. The lead dog was carrying an empty chain dog collar in his mouth and dropped the collar at the foot of the statue. Upon a single loud command from the head trainer, all the dogs sat and began to bark at once. Shortly after that there was a fly over by Air Force fighter planes, then taps was played. There was not a dry eye in the entire area. I still get the chills thinking about it. Shortly after that a long line of hundreds of Veterans from WWII, Korea and up, lined up and were given a single stem rose, then promptly filed up to the statue where some touched the bronze dog and placed the rose on the statue. The thing that was most amazing to me were all the stories from the Veterans, some told for the first time in 30 years. Families told both Tom and I that their father/husband would never talk about their experiences until now. The moving experience of that day at the War Dog Memorial unveiling helped many of those vets to open up.”

It was a day to be cherished forever by those in attendance. As I looked one last time before starting home, my thoughts were these: what a magnificent symbol of the comradeship, protection, sacrifice and love between man and dog. It was a magical and moving moment. For me, an experience never to be forgotten. When I arrived home I sat down and looked into the eyes of my four legged soul mate who lives here with me. We love each other unconditionally. It is a bond that every man or woman with their dog, understands. It is no cliche to say that it is a bond that truly transcends language.

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“Let slip the dogs of war…” – W. S.