There were a whole lot of veterans and current service members at Saluda Trail Middle School on Thursday.
The school’s annual veterans event played host to Tuskegee Airmen, one of the last living female Marines from World War II and plenty more who served or are serving in the armed forces.
But there were two who stood apart from the rest. They were shorter, with four legs, floppy tongues and alert ears that perked up as students crowded around them, petting and scratching them.
For the first time, the Saluda Trail event included “war dogs” and their people, handlers who served in Vietnam, dogs by their sides.
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“I would say the number one comment I hear is, ‘I didn’t know dogs served in the military,’” said Johnny Mayo, who travels the country with his exhibit on war dogs, self-published a book of their stories and is the director of the South Carolina War Dog Memorial – an effort to erect a statue of a soldier and his dog in Columbia’s Memorial Park by the end of next year.
Dogs have a long history of serving in battle.
In Vietnam, Mayo said, most dogs in the Army were scout dogs. Together with their handlers, they would “walk point” ahead of all the other soldiers. Mayo’s first dog lasted four days before it was killed. Four out of five military dogs killed in Vietnam were Army scout dogs.
There were also dogs who served as sentry dogs, before technology like the military has today. They’d patrol the base and provide security, Mayo said.
More than 4,000 dogs served in the Vietnam War, Mayo said, and 289 dogs were killed in action. But the tragedy didn’t end there.
When a documentary on war dogs in Vietnam aired on the Discovery Channel in 1999, Vietnam veterans like Mayo who had worked with them learned that almost every military dog that was alive at the end of the war was killed – labeled “surplus equipment.”
“That shocked all the handlers,” he said.
Now, thanks to a law passed in 2000, there is an established adoption program for military working dogs, so as few as possible share the fate of the dogs from Vietnam. Currently, Mayo said, there are about 3,000 working dogs doing all types of jobs.
While Mayo talked to the hoards of students and teachers at Saluda Trail, all eyes were on Luke, a 9 1/2-year-old German shepherd. He’s got the alert ears and bright eyes of many dogs like him who serve in the military, although Luke is just an ambassador for Mayo’s educational program. He also serves in Vietnam re-enactments.
“And he loves it,” Mayo said. “It gets him all excited when he hears the blades of that helo (helicopter).”
Many of the Saluda Trail students said they had no idea dogs served in the military.
“It was great and unique to see them,” said eighth-grader Kelly Foster. “I appreciate them fighting in the war.”
And Luke seemed to revel in the students’ appreciation, enjoying their petting and scratching, sitting on the grass behind tables covered in photos of dogs just like him, past and present, who sometimes gave their lives in service to their country.