Animal Soldiers
By Karen Fanning


A U.S. Navy dog-handler issues commands to his military working dog, Argo, while conducting a simulated training drill in Kuwait. Argo, who is trained as a bomb and patrol dog, has served in the Navy for about one year. (Photo: U.S. Navy Photo by Photographer's Mate 1st Class Ario K. Abrahamson)
They're loyal soldiers in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. But these are no ordinary warriors. They're the proud battalion of elite military dogs who will accompany American soldiers onto the battlefield.

While the U.S. won't reveal just how many dogs are called to duty, nearly 1,400 currently serve as American soldiers. They are trained to detect bombs and land mines, and rescue wounded soldiers. Two breeds in particular, the Belgian Malinois and the German shepherd, are favored for their strength and work ethic.

Like their four-legged counterparts, nearly two dozen sea lions are participating in the Persian Gulf. Their assignment? Patrolling offshore waters to detect enemy intruders. The sea lions spend their days practicing combat drills. Their endurance and speed—they can swim up to 25 miles per hour—make them well-suited for their duties as underwater detectives.

Not all Americans are applauding the military's use of animals in combat. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has openly criticized what they consider inhumane tactics.

"These animals never enlisted; they know nothing of Iraq or Saddam Hussein, and they probably won't survive," says Arathi Jayaram, a spokesman for PETA, an animal rights group. "The military can detect weapons and find wounded troops with some very sophisticated equipment."

That isn't always the case, say military officials. Animals have unique gifts—low-light vision, biological sonar, and directional hearing—that can't be duplicated even with the most-advanced technology.

The U.S. military also points to a long history in which America's creatures have successfully served their country. Until the end of World War I, horses provided transportation for soldiers. In the late 1950s, the Navy began using bottlenose dolphins to locate mines. During the Vietnam War, dogs tracked down booby traps and lugged wounded soldiers to safety.

"For thousands of years of his history, man has made use of the capabilities of animals—their strength, extraordinary senses, swimming or flying ability," says Tom LaPuzza, public affairs officer for the U.S. Naval Marine Mammal Program.

Presidential candidate and Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman is so impressed with the military's heroic canines, he has proposed building a national war dog memorial in Washington, D.C.

"[They] have contributed to the security of our nation and the freedom of our people," he says. "These are not ordinary dogs, but loyal, spirited, and courageous animals."