The many abuses suffered by America’s troops during and after the Vietnam War – they were called “baby killers,” spat upon and treated like dogs – have since become common knowledge.
But what about the actual dogs? Some 4,000 of them, who served brilliantly and faithfully alongside America’s fighting men in the Vietnam jungles. How were they treated?
A drive to honor the animals for their heroics in Vietnam and every war that America has been involved in beginning with World War II has been conducted by veteran John Burnam, a dog handler in the Vietnam war.
Burnam’s campaign has led to the creation of a monument that will be dedicated on Sunday, October 13, at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.
Since 1958 the dogs have undergone basic training at Lackland preparatory to a variety of critical roles for the five U.S. armed services – Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard.
Paula Slater, a Hidden Valley Lake, California, resident, was selected by Burnam to create the bronze edifice comprised of dogs of the four breeds – Doberman, Labrador Retriever, German Shepherd and Belgian Malinois – that serve the U.S. military.
Sharing the 10-foot-high pedestal with the dogs is a 9-and-a-half-foot tall dog handler fully outfitted for combat.
Slater’s creation is currently on tour through the U.S. to generate public interest.
There is a noble effect to the monument, which is, in a way, paradoxical because in its hurried flight from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1973 the U.S. military didn’t treat its dogs nobly.
In fact, the aforementioned 4,000 of them, who saved an estimated 10,000 American servicemen through their scouting and sentry duties, were crated and left behind on a tarmac somewhere in South Vietnam.
The dogs were classified as “surplus equipment.” Appeals by their handlers to bring them home fell on deaf ears.
What happened to the dogs after that? No one really knows.
Over the past six years, Burnam, a resident of Washington, D.C, has written two books and several documents and has worked inexhaustibly to honor the war dogs.
His work has included driving legislation through the U.S. House and Senate and securing Presidents George Bush’s and Barack Obama’s signatures on bills in 2008 and 2009.
Another piece of legislation, driven by North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones and signed into law in October 2009, put the John Burnam Monument Foundation in charge of the effort to build a monument to honor the dogs.
Since 2010 Burnam’s organization has been raising funds for the monument. (Click here for further details on the monument.)
To date, Burnam said, the amount of money raised is $1.7 million. Most of the funding has come from Natural Balance pet food, which built a replica of the iconic figures created by Slater for the Rose Bowl parade.
Petco aided by putting products in its stores and raising money. Maddie’s Fund also has made a huge contribution to the monument campaign.
“American people have provided funds, too, and we are ready for construction at Lackland,” Burnam beamed. “It is a shovel-ready job that is set to start in May and be completed by the first of September. Sunday, the 13th of October, is scheduled as the dedication date.”
Burnam conducted a Web search to find Slater. “I went to about four different bronze artists and she was the best of all of them as far as I was concerned in how we interacted,” he recalled. “I told her I want the kind of detail that you put into your work put into these dogs. They have to be anatomically correct, and I said I want a dog handler one and a half times the size of a 6-foot man.”
Said Slater: “John sent me hundreds of photographs of dogs that he had taken at Lackland of dogs, I met with three breeders and shot some photographs of my own. I met the dogs and looked at their paws and their ears and their different kinds of anatomy. They look very different from each other … It was an incredibly complex piece. It took 17 different molds to make the dog handler which had to be cast in bronze and welded together.”
She needed 16 months to sculpt the dog memorial and two and a half years for the overall project when an accompanying creation of a dog handler pouring water into his helmet and his dog was added.
The entire project “right down to the shoe laces,” weighs 1,200 pounds, she said.
Slater will use about half of the $350,000 she is being awarded for her lifelike sculpture to pay for final touches, such as casting and finishing.
That she had sculpted war memorials before worked in her favor.
Her Ascent of Heroism, which stands in the Grandview Veterans Circle in Altoona, Pennsylvania, is comprised of seven different figures representing heroes of as many American-fought wars. A nurse characterizes World War I.
While developing this piece in 2009 Slater was simultaneously sculpting a 10-foot-tall young Abraham Lincoln that stands in Springfield, Ky., an assignment she was singled out to do from an original list of 70 candidates.
But the dog memorial, she said, is the most defining piece of the 15-year segment of her career of sculpting large monuments.
“There are very few monuments that are elevated to national status,” she explained. “This one has gone through the Congress, the Senate and two presidents and it’s taken over eight years for that to happen.
“If you’d have told me 20 years ago that I would do something like this I would have been dumbstruck,” Slater added. “It’s amazing and it’s a great honor to know there are going to be thousands of people at the dedication.”
Burnam looks back on his perilous experience as a dog-handler in the rubber plantations of Vietnam and recalls his dog companion Clipper, whose extrasensory hearing could detect trip wires attached to detonating devices twanging in the wind, which was inaudible to a human. He could also pick up the scent of an enemy entrenchment.
“These dogs did an incredible job of saving lives when there was firing from both sides. The dog stays down with you,” he said. “They know the difference between life and death … The dogs got so good at doing that that the enemy put a price tag on their heads.
“Most people don’t know what these dogs do,” Burnam added. “Once they’ve heard or read the stories of them they’re just amazed.”
And perhaps stunned that 4,000 of them could have been left behind on a tarmac in South Vietnam.
To view additional sculptures by Lake County artist Paula Slater visit PaulaSlater.com.
This article was orginally published March 24, 2013 by Lake County News . It is reprinted here with permission. The author, John Lindblom, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and find Lake County News online at LakeCoNews.com.