The term “super soldier” has been thrown around as an idea for video games and movies, but what if I told you that there already existed a fighter who could sense IEDs with their nose, avoid gunfire more easily than common soldiers, and were heavily trained in the art of hand-to-hand combat? What if I told you that all these soldiers asked for in return was the praise of their brothers-in-arms and a few minutes to play with a tennis ball?
These “super soldiers” are Military Working Dogs (MWDs) and are some of the most important weapons we have in the fight against our nation’s enemy.
Fun fact: K9s are considered a rank above their handlers so that their detection of bombs and explosives are considered a direct order to bring in the bomb squad.
Military Working Dogs, the term for K9 units used in the US Armed Forces, have been officially in used by the United States military since the inception of the 341st Training Squadron, but were used by American troops as early as the Civil War.
Their loyalty, fearlessness, and utility is a serious advantage for any soldier who has them by their side in a firefight or patrol. But a MWD’s job is never done–when they’re not on the front lines, these same canines provide a valuable moral boost to our soldiers back at base
In celebration of the release of the movie Max, the fictional story of a Military Working Dog who returns home, we thought that we’d celebrate the lives of ten actual MWDs who saved the lives of their brothers and sisters with their valiant efforts. Their stories are guaranteed to inspire and excite.
If these stories strike a chord with you, we ask that you visit the Save-A-Vet website–a valuable resource for adopting military working dogs. It wasn’t until 2000 with the passing of Robby’s Law (named after a MWD who was euthanized before his handler could adopt him) that these soldiers were even allowed to return home. Before that, these dogs who risked it all were either euthanized or left to their allies’ keep. Officially, they are still categorized as “used equipment.”
Breed: Black Labrador Retriever
Toby is a Specialized Search Dog who was partnered with Army Specialist Thomas J. Jackson in Afghanistan during their 11-month tour in the worst part of Afghanistan. Toby led the combat patrol searching for IEDs or Taliban insurgents.
On the hundreds of patrols that Toby went on, he discovered countless explosives, RPG caches, and a 250-pound guided bomb that failed to detonate on impact. These discoveries regularly saved the lives of his combat patrol, but Toby’s unit was particularly thankful for one specific moment.
During a raid on a Taliban house, Toby went in first as he usually did, but this time he sat at the door refusing to let anyone enter. Suspicious, the patrol called in a bomb squad. They later learned that the entire place had been wired to explode.
Breed: Boston Bull Terrier
War/Conflict: World War I
Sergeant Stubby is one of the most famous Military Working Dogs in United States military history. In addition to being the single-most decorated canine in World War I, he is the only dog to have ever been promoted to the rank of Sergeant through combat.
Stubby was instrumental in protecting the 102nd Infantry Regiment. Not only was his keen sense of smell able to detect when deadly mustard gas had been released, his ears picked up the sound of whistling artillery much quicker than his human companions. In moments like those, every second of early detection could mean the difference between life and death.
Finally, Stubby was single-handedly responsible for the capture of a German spy who he reportedly subdued by the seat of his pants. Following this capture, Stubby was put up for promotion. In addition to serving as the Yale mascot following his return home, Stubbs now has a brick dedicated to his name in the Walk of Honor.
The coat you see him wearing above was sewn by the women of Château-Thierry, a town he helped to save. Ladies love a hero.
Breed: Belgian Malinois
War/Conflict: The War on Terror
Cairo was the dog brought along on Operation Neptune Spear, the Navy SEAL special ops now famous for the location and killing of Osama Bin Laden. Armed with all sorts of equipment and tactical support, Cairo searched the outside of OBL’s compound and helped to secure the perimeter.
While Cairo may not have directly saved the lives of the Navy SEALS who breached Bin Laden’s fortress, there is little doubt that his aid in killing a monster prevented further attacks from Al Qaeda.
Breed: German Shepard
War/Conflict: Vietnam War
Nemo was stationed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, an important base of operations for both US troops and the Republic of Vietnam Air Force. While he and his handler Airman Robert Throneburg were on night patrol, the brave German Shepard alerted Robert to the presence of nearby enemy sappers.
Together, Nemo and Airman Throneburg killed two VC in combat, but Throneburg was subsequently shot twice. Nemo himself had been shot through the snout, taking out his right eye. Despite his injuries, he kept Throneburg awake long enough for the Airman to radio in the position of the attackers.
Once help arrived, the injured Nemo would not leave Throneburg’s side until a veterinarian was able to lure Nemo away. Airman Robert Throneburg received two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star Medal with the V for valor (BSV). Nemo was one of the first K-9 units retired and returned to the US.
Breed: Belgian Malinois
On July 6th, 2011 Ryky was riding in a vehicle convoy with her handler Army Staff Sgt. James Harrington. The second of three vehicles hit an IED, after which Ryky and Harrington sprang into action.
Leaping from the third vehicle, the K9 unit secured the ambush spot and helped to clear space for a medivac. For her actions, Ryky was awarded the K9 Medal for Exceptional Service by the K9s of the War on Terror, Inc.
Breed: Yorkshire Terrier
War/Conflict: World War II
Despite Smoky’s small stature (I mean, she fits in a freaking helmet) and cute demeanor, you wouldn’t find anyone in the 5th Pacific Air Force division who would trade her for a more vicious dog.
Smoky was comfortable anywhere–whether it was dangling from the machine gun of a bomber miles high (she flew 12 combat missions), or in the troop transports where she helped save her handler’s life. “As the ship deck was booming and vibrating from anti-aircraft gunnery, Smoky guided [her handler] to duck the fire that hit 8 men standing next to them.”
She survived a total of 150 air raids while on New Guinea, and was instrumental in setting up a base in Luzon. Her small stature allowed Smoky to run a telegraph wire from one end of a long pipe to another, thus securing a line of communication.
Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Valdo
Breed: Unknown (Belgian Malinois)
The intent of OPERATION RED SAND, carried out by eleven servicemen and Valdo, and was to remove booby traps and explosives from Kobali and Kamusari Villages in Afghanistan. After successfully securing the villages and removing said booby traps, the US servicemen came under fire from numerous a large ambush outside Kamusari. RPGs and heavy machine gun fire rained down for everywhere.
Suddenly an RPG exploded in the middle of four soldiers, including Valdo’s handler Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan Lee, but Valdo caught a brunt of the shrapnel. Lee recounts his reaction:
“That was a handler’s worst nightmare. When that RPG came in and exploded next to us, all I could think about was how to get Valdo off that field. His screams were jolting and I knew I had to get him to safety, and felt helpless because there was nothing I could do with the amount of incoming fire.”
The entire moment was captured on film that you can watch here (don’t worry, you don’t see much of anything):
Miraculously the fire team survived the ambush and managed to medevac Valdo and five other servicemen. The heroic Navy Military Working Dog made it through five surgeries and is now retired from service with a Purple Heart.
Breed: German Shepard/Collie/Husky mix
War/Conflict: World War II
At one point in time, Chips was the single most decorated military working dog in US history. This fantastic friend and fighter served as a tank guard dog in both Africa and Europe as part of General Patton’s Seventh Army.
On one occasion, Chips dodged gunfire and ran a phone cable from an ambushed platoon back to base so that they could establish a secure line of communication. Because his platoon was then able to successfully call in reinforcements, Chips saved many lives that day.
But he wasn’t just a runner, Chips knew more than a thing or two about fighting. While walking on a beach in Sicily with his company, Chips and his soldiers came under fire from a hidden pill box. While the rest of his comrades took cover, Chips ran headfirst into the pillbox.
Although he took serious damage, Chips managed to not only clear the pillbox but also shepherd the bitten Italian soliders towards the thankful American soldiers. Perfect combination of German Shepard and Collie, wouldn’t you say?
Chips earned a Silver Star for valor and a Purple Heart for his actions that day, although they were later taken away because the Commander of the Order of the Purple Heart claimed those awards were demeaning to the rest of the soldiers who had earned them.
Breed: Belgian Malinois
Azza, like many Belgian Malinois stationed in Afghanistan, was a military working dog trained to sniff out IEDs in areas of operation. She saved the lives of her handler, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Leonard Anderson, and his comrades twice in one day.
The first time, Azza’s behavior changed while Anderson and his team were out on an ops, signaling that there was an IED nearby. Anderson called in the bomb technicians who learned there was a bomb not more than a step away.
Later on their patrol, the squad was alerted to the sound of a motorcycle–likely an ambush scout. Azza once again changed her behavior and crossed the road looking for the bomb. “I just froze in place,” Anderson says. “It was mainly to try to read her a little bit better…see what she was going to do. She picked her head up, myself an a lieutenant took a few steps, and…boom.”
If Azza hadn’t alerted Anderson to the presence of the bomb, the Tech. Sergeant would have been a few more feet foward, likely causing his ultimate death. Instead, Anderson underwent numerous surgeries and promises to find ways to work with more working dogs. Azza was later reunited with Anderson back home.
Breed: Belgian Malnois
Layka and her handler Staff Sgt. Julian McDonald received a lot of attention recently, as the two became the face of the controversy whether or not Military Working Dogs should be given the right to retire back home in the United States (as opposed to being put down after their service). Thankfully, Julian was able to bring Layka back home with him, but that would never had been possible if Layka hadn’t saved Julian’s life.
The three-year-old dog was accompanying Staf Sgt. Julian McDonald on a SPEC OPS mission when they came across a house wired with explosives. Julian sent Layka into the house, where she discovered an insurgent waiting for them to enter the door. Layka successfully subdued the terrorist, but sustained severe injuries.
Her front left leg had to be amputated, but there is little doubt in Julian McDonald’s mind that she saved her life. Watch the video below on life after Afghanistan for both Julian and Layka. And yes, that is Layka on the cover on National Geographic.