On Oct. 6, Gabe, a weapons sniffing dog at Fort Jackson who conducted 210 combat missions in Iraq – and has more than 20,000 Facebook friends – will be cooling his paws at the Beverly Hills Hilton with the likes of Betty White and Whoopi Goldberg.
The 10-year-old lab mix — who was rescued as a puppy from a Houston shelter just one day before he was to be euthanized — is the 2012 American Humane Association Hero Dog in the military category. Now he and his handler, Sgt. 1st Class Charles “Chuck” Shuck, will face off against other service dogs, from guide dogs to search and rescue dogs, for the title of American Humane Association Hero Dog of the Year before the panel of celebrity judges.
They have a chance to win $10,000 to support other service dogs and handlers now fighting in Afghanistan.
“Gabe is no more of a hero than any other dog in the military,” said Shuck, 33, a Pennsylvania native and military policeman who did three tours of duty in Iraq. “But it’s an honor, and the winnings are going to help other dogs and handlers.”
As the military category champ, Gabe already has won $5,000 for the non-profit United States War Dog Association, which gives out “care packages” to dogs and handlers fighting in Afghanistan. There dogs serve as trackers, find roadside bombs, locate weapons hidden in buildings and work highway check points, among other duties.
The care packages can contain goggles and boots for the dog; ear muffs to protect their ears from loud sounds during helicopter flights, ear wash, eye wash, cooling vests and toys.
“But a lot of it is just moral support,” association president Ron Aiello, a Vietnam-era dog handler, said from his Burlington, New Jersey office. “We want to build up their morale by letting them know that people back in the states support them.”
Aiello said that the organization, through their website uswardogs.org, can also provide individuals with a list of items for a care package and people can send them directly to the dog teams.
“A lot of people like that because they have personal contact with the dog team,” Aiello said. “They become pen pals and some even become friends when the handlers and dogs return.”
Even though Gabe has been retired since he returned from Iraq in 2007, Shuck nominated him and conducted a vigorous social media campaign to win the military honors over 17 other dogs.
Gabe has amassed 20,600 “friends” on his “Vote Gabe 2012” Facebook page and received 190,000 votes on the Humane Association’s herodogawards.org website. The votes came from all 50 states and 20 different countries, Shock said.
During his year in Iraq from 2006-2007, Gabe had 26 “finds” – weapons, bombs and ammunition.
“He was one of the most successful dogs in theater for that year,” Shuck said.
Voting is now open for Hero Dog of the Year on herodogawards.org. The Website has detailed biographies of each dog. A person can vote once a day through Oct. 5. The final decision will be based 49 percent on the vote of the public and 51 percent on the opinion of the star-studded panel of judges.
Shuck, now a Senior Drill Sergeant Leader at Fort Jackson’s Drill Sergeant School, said the campaign also is a way to promote adopting shelter dogs.
“All these dogs get euthanized and they can do great things — like serve their country in the military or become service dogs for individuals,” he said.
Gabe was adopted by an individual in Houston in 2002, and was donated to the military to become a working dog.
Shuck of Lansford, Penn., and Gabe met in 2006 at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas — one of the military’s main working dog training facilities.
They shipped to Iraq in 2006. While there, another dog team they trained with — Cpl. Kory Weins and Cooper — were killed by a roadside bomb.
“They were the first dog-handler team to be killed together since Vietnam,” Shock said.
Although the military doesn’t release the number of dogs and handlers killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Aiello estimated the number at 60 to 70 each. He estimated there now are about 600 dogs working in Afghanistan.
The use of dogs has increased dramatically in the past five years, and they are credited in part for the reduction in the number of soldiers killed by roadside bombs
“It’s a very dangerous job,” Aiello said. “That’s where most of the dogs and handlers get killed or wounded.”
While in Iraq, a vehicle Shuck and Gabe were riding in was hit by a road side bomb, but they weren’t injured. They also survived a shootout with insurgents while checking an Iraqi town for weapons.
The two were stationed with field artillery units, and Gabe eventually became sensitive to the loud booms of the guns. Today Gabe, who has gone from a slim 67 pounds during his fighting days to 98 pounds in his retirement, is frightened by thunder, perhaps a bit of doggy PTSD.
“When it storms I build him a little fort of cardboard and pillows,” Shuck said.
But even in retirement, Gabe can help his fellow dogs and handlers by winning the competition, Shuck said.
“I knew that Gabe had a good story,” he said, “and if we can win the money for our charity, why not?”