30 Sep 2011

Why the Vietnam Wall is eighty three feet short

Finding Jack 1 Comment

(A column written for Animal Talk magazine)

by Gareth Crocker

During a trip to Washington some years ago, I spent a good few hours just standing quietly at the Vietnam Wall. It’s pretty mundane I have to say when viewed through a camera lens thousands of miles away, but in the flesh, so to speak, it’s really quite something. It’s made of black-polished granite and is almost 500 feet long. It carries the names of the 60 000 or so American soldiers who were lost in the fiery blizzard of the Vietnam War.

What’s particularly moving to me, however, is that the wall should be a great deal longer – around eighty-three feet is my guess.

To understand why I say this you and I, dear reader, will have to take a short but dark step back in history. It’s not a happy place if I’m being honest with you, but we can go together. You can even take my arm if you like.

On January 27, 1973 thousands of families across America were in tears. They were crying not from sorrow, but in joyous celebration.

It was the day an official cease-fire was announced to the Vietnam War. The agreement stipulated that all U.S. and allied troops be withdrawn from Vietnam’s borders and that all prisoners – on both sides – be released within 60 days. The pact also permitted North Vietnam to leave 150 000 troops in the south and called for internationally-supervised elections to decide the course of the country’s political future. In short, the war was at an end.

Never had a defeat been so embraced. Those young American and allied soldiers lucky enough to survive the horror of their tours would all be home soon. Some, of course, were returning to another war that would be waged in the privacy of their homes for years to come, mostly in the small hours of the morning.

Be that as it may, mothers and fathers would once again be reunited with their children. Wives would have their husbands back, children their fathers. It was a good day for U.S. and allied families.

This was not the case, unfortunately, if you were an American war dog.

But before I explain why, we need to understand a little more about the Vietnam conflict.

For US and allied troops fighting in Vietnam, the war consisted of a seemingly continuous stream of tactical operations, incursions and reconnaissance missions that would often be swiftly followed by devastating bombing campaigns.

As the war continued, it became obvious that the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Vietcong, or Charlie as he was known, were extremely effective and savage exponents of guerrilla warfare; well at home in the cloying jungle heat of South East Asia.

As the years dragged on, U.S. and allied forces began to lose their foothold in the war. Soldiers spoke increasingly of Charlie as a ghost who never slept. He would appear out of nowhere, stab them and vanish inexplicably. After a firefight or an ambush he would always quickly withdraw, almost supernaturally into the shadows – taking his dead and maimed away with him. Often the only evidence of the mêlée would be the spent bullet casings littered on the ground.

From ambushes and punji pits to tripwires linked to grenades and Claymore mines, Charlie was a highly formidable enemy. The U.S and her allies needed urgent help to stay alive.

Enter the war dogs.

Some 4000 highly-trained tracker, scout and combat dogs, mostly German Shepherds and Labradors, were sent over to assist troops in various vital tasks, but most importantly in detecting ambushes, mines and booby traps.

In the end it’s believed they saved the lives of some 10 000 U.S. and allied soldiers – a conservative estimate by all accounts. The Internet is besieged with stories of the war dogs and how they saved their platoons. The affection with which the stories are told is almost too much to bear.

Hold tight, friends, here’s where our story truly darkens.

On that famous day when loved ones across the U.S. and, indeed the world, were celebrating the end of the war, events were in motion that would rock the animal loving world.

Despite the dogs’ sacrifice and their invaluable contribution to the war, the U.S. government declared the animals “Surplus Military Equipment” and ordered that they be left behind together with old tents, defunct equipment and weathered prefabs.

Some of the animals were handed to the South Vietnamese, but most were abandoned. The lucky ones were euthanased. Others succumbed to disease or were skinned and eaten by the Vietcong.

All told, more than 4000 dogs were sent into a place not unlike my idea of hell. Less than 200 made it home.

Imagine, if you can, the anguish of those dog handlers who were forced, sometimes violently, to leave their partners behind. I wasn’t even born when this was happening, but it moves me to the quick just thinking about it.

There is a moving story about a decorated dog handler who, after learning about the construction of the Vietnam Wall in 1982 made sure he was there the day they laid the foundations.

As they poured in the wet cement he threw several small items into the mix, saluted and walked away. A builder, working on the site, pulled him aside and asked him what he had cast into the mix.

‘My war medals,’ he replied.

‘Why’d you do it?’ replied the bemused builder.

‘In memory of my dog. His name is not on this wall but, without him, mine would have been.’

And so we come to the end of our journey, dear reader. That such brave animals – loyal soldiers – were abandoned and seemingly left to die saddens me profoundly.

Ultimately, it’s widely held that the decision to abandon the dogs came down to cost.

Dollars over dogs, if you will.

May the world never forget the thousands of lives these brave canine soldiers saved and the ultimate price they paid in doing so. Without them, the Vietnam Wall would be a further 83 feet long.

For more information on the Vietnam War Dogs, visit: www.war-dogs.com.

One Response to “Why the Vietnam Wall is eighty three feet short”

  1. Patti Levenson says:

    Gareth,

    Where do I begin; i could hardly read the last pages through my tears. What a moving, sad, beautiful novel, “Finding Jack.” I love this story. It is difficult for me to wrap my mind around the fact that these dogs were not brought home. It deeply affects me to think what the handlers must have gone through on top of everything else those vets had to endure upon coming home.

    I just wanted to thank you.

    Respectfully,

    Patti

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