Blumenthal in dogfight over status of retired military pooches

Washington — To some advocates, Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s amendment concerning the military’s canine workforce is part victory and part doggone shame.

“It’s not exactly what we wanted, but we’re thrilled we got our foot in the door,” said Lisa Phillips, a former Army veterinary technician from East Hartford who is an advocate for military working dogs.

Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, agreed to help Phillips try to change the status of these highly trained animals that sniff out narcotics and bombs and whose keen sensory perceptions can alert U.S. forces to enemy troops who are more than a mile away.

Jones lisa rambo

Sgt. Rambo, a recently retired working dog in the United States Marine Corps, with U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., and Lisa Phillips of East Hartford, founder of the Retired Military Working Dog Assistance Organization.

The dogs save the lives of more than 100 U.S. troops every year. But when they are no longer able to perform their jobs, they are considered excess military equipment, like an out-of-commission tank or an obsolete rifle, and often left behind in a theater of war or overseas base.

Even if a soldier wanted to adopt a retired military working dog, the cost of bringing the pooch home — about $2,000 — is often prohibitive.

Blumenthal wanted the dogs reclassified as “canine members of the armed forces” which would guarantee them a free trip home.

He introduced an amendment to a defense bill that authorizes hundreds of billions of dollars in Pentagon spending. It would reclassify the animals and require the military to ship them home to people who want to adopt them or to an Air Force base in Texas that trains the dogs and puts them up for adoption.

Blumenthal’s amendment would also require the Pentagon to award medals to dogs who’ve performed heroic acts or have been killed in action and establish a doggie equivalent to the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide retired dogs a system of veterinary care.

“These dogs are so much more than a rifle or a tank. They are living, breathing heroes who have saved the lives of our troops and provided many of our veterans with companionship long after they retire from service,” Blumenthal said.

Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., took up the cause in the House, winning approval of a similar amendment in that chamber.

But a dogfight erupted over the issue in the final defense authorization bill.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and other lawmakers “had negative feedback” on the military dog provision and insisted it be weakened Phillips said.

McCain’s office did not respond to several requests seeking comment.

But the final amendment to the defense authorization bill — which President Obama signed into law last week — only allows, but does not require, military officers to transfer retiring dogs to the Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, or another location that would prevent adopters from having to pay the high cost of transporting the dogs from overseas.

The provision for doggie medals was also weakened. Instead of the canine equivalent to the Purple Heart, heroic dogs will receive a letter of commendation.

Blumenthal said “this fight is far from over.”

He joined a group of six senators who recently wrote the Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta reminding him the military has now an option of shipping retired dogs home on military transport and asking him to use his authority to reclassify the dogs as members of the Armed Forces.

There are nearly 3,000 military working dogs in the U.S. military. About 300 retire each year, usually because they are too old or sick to continue to perform their duties.

The favored breed in the military is the Belgian Malinois, which is sometimes confused with a German shepherd but is smaller and some say more agile. The American Kennel Club says the breed is “intelligent and trainable…and possesses a strong desire to work and is happiest with regular activity and a job to do.”

According to the New York Times, a Belgian Malinois was part of the Navy SEAL team that attacked Osama bin Laden’s compound. The heroic pooch was reportedly strapped to a Navy SEAL as the troops were lowered from a hovering helicopter.

The armed forces also uses German Shepherds and other breeds of dogs. The Navy, for instance, is partial to beagles and terriers.

For Phillips, the most important thing the military can do is recognize the valor of these dogs with a special medal.

She remains optimistic they will all eventually get what she believes is their due and is convinced of Blumenthal’s dedication to the cause..

“The senator’s support of our military, two-legged and four-legged is unwavering,” Phillips said.