Why Aren’t Military Dogs Given Purple Hearts?

More and more we will read stories about brave military working dogs saving the lives of servicemen and -women—and suffering traumatic war injuries. So why aren’t these dogs decorated with the medals given to their brave human counterparts?

It all goes back to Chips. In 1942, the mixed-breed dog was volunteered to the war effort by his owner, Edward J. Wren of Pleasantville, New York, reported Military.com. (After the attack on Pearl Harbor, civilians were permitted to enlist their dogs in the newly formed K-9 Corps.) Chips proved be invaluable as part of General Patton’s Seventh Army. While in Sicily, he protected his handler from an machine-gun attack on the beach, and later that night, while wounded, he alerted of an impending attack by the Italian army. Chips was awarded a Silver Star, Distinguished Service Cross, and Purple Heart.

Unfortunately, William Thomas, Commander of the Order of the Purple Heart at the time, caught word of Chip’s honors and complained that giving the medals to a dog was an insult to the men who received them. It’s been widely reported that Chips was stripped of his medals—but an article in a 1944 issue of Time magazine claimed, “The Army's Adjutant General, Major General James A. Ulio, ruled, following protests, that Chips could keep his medals but no more medals would be allowed to dogs.”

This still remains the rule today. “The use of military decorations is limited to human personnel who distinguish themselves in service to the nation," Defense Department spokeswoman Eileen Lainez was quoted saying in 2010.

Several dogs made the news in recent years for being recipients of commemorative Purple Hearts. For instance Lucca, a German Shepherd Dog–Belgian Malinois mix who lost a leg to an IED while deployed in Afghanistan, was given several honors, including a commemorative Purple Heart from a recipient who had been awarded two. Lex, a German Shepherd who was injured in Iraq, was likewise honored with a donated medal from a Purple Heart recipient at a Military Working Dog Memorial at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.

Ron Aiello, founder of the US War Dog Association explains, though, these awards are not officially recognized. “There are no awards given to military dogs at this time,” he confirms.

Aiello has been trying for about a decade to convince the Department of Defense to create a separate official military medal just for K-9s. “They say they can’t do that,” Aiello told AKC, adding that he even asked for his organization to be sanctioned to give the awards but was told that civilian organization cannot be sanctioned.

“We utilize these dogs, and they are recognized as a large asset to our military,” he told us. “But we can’t honor them.”

America seems to be alone on that front. Great Britain honors military working dogs worldwide with the Dickin Medal, which is the K-9 equivalent to the Victoria Cross, the highest military honor given. Recently, we shared the story of Gander, a Newfoundland from Canada who earned the Dickin Medal for carrying a grenade in his mouth away from soldiers, among other accomplishments.

Fortunately, the American Kennel Club Humane Fund’s Awards for Canine Excellence (ACE) recognize the brave efforts of military, police, and search and rescue dogs. The awards, given each year, honor a dog in this category (as well as four other categories). Lex, mentioned above was given an ACE in 2008. Learn about the awards, the brave dogs who have been honored, and how to nominate a dog here.

Also, Aiello created the Military Working Dog Service Award, which is given upon request to dogs who actively participated in ground or surface combat. Learn more about that here.

Top Photo: Lucca, a military working dog, looks at his handler, U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Chris Willingham, waiting for a command during cordon and knock operations in Afak, Iraq, Nov. 30, 2008. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Eric Harris from Defense.gov.

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