- The Washington Times - Monday, November 30, 2015

The U.S. military prides itself on “leaving no man behind,” but it’s been a different story for some of its war dogs.

America’s fighting canines, who undoubtedly saved many lives in battle by detecting hidden bombs, do not always make it home during the long war on terrorism for a variety of reasons. Some were retired overseas, making them “civilians” ineligible for military-funded transportation back to the States.

“We do not know the full story of what has happened to military dogs left overseas after retirement,” said Mark Stubis, spokesman for the American Humane Association. “In some cases they’ve been kept in kennels for indeterminate lengths of time until someone wanted them. In the best cases, some have been adopted by U.S. military personnel living abroad. In others, they were adopted by local people and, we have heard, in some cases, abused.”

Now Congress has stepped in. Tucked inside the 2016 Defense Department budget bill signed by President Obama is a new law that directs the military to bring home all working dogs stateside if they are being retired.

With the government now paying the freight, the measure greatly improves the chances dogs will be reunited with battlefield handlers who wish to adopt them. The legislation reemphasizes that handlers are first in line for adoption. If the handler has died or is severely wounded, family members would then have a chance to take the animal.

The final disposition of retired working dogs is a complicated picture. The military has disputed the charge that it carelessly leaves them overseas. But it does say that if a handler at home wants to adopt his former mate, he or she often must bear the cost of shipping the canine.

The American Humane Association, which fought for the new law, says that over the past year it privately funded the trip home of 21 military working dogs and contract dogs and helped reunite them with their wartime humans. Such private financing will no longer be necessary.

“This is a momentous day for all veterans,” said Robin Ganzert, the Humane Association president and CEO. “We applaud Congress and the president for passing and signing the bill with the language we provided and stepping up for our brave K-9 Battle Buddy teams who have benefited and will continue to benefit from their service together.”

The association quoted retired Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Jeff DeYoung, who was reunited with his war dog, Cena, as saying the bill “will ensure that our four-legged veterans will finally have their chance to come home and live a comfortable, quiet life, hopefully with a handler they deployed with or a fellow veteran.”

The Air Force oversees development of military working dogs. Dogs and handlers are trained at Lackland Air Force Base’s 341st Training Squadron for a variety of roles.

In 2010, for example, the Marine Corps wanted a dog skilled in tracking human quarry. Lackland came up with a new war dog: the “Combat Tracker.”

“Upon deployment, Combat Trackers assist unit commanders by tracking enemy insurgents, [bomb] makers and snipers,” the squadron says. “This force multiplier offers the abilities to both stop current attacks and prevent future ones.”

Congress’ new canine dictate is a rewriting of a 2000 law that came to be known as “Robby’s Law,” named after a canine who was euthanized at the very moment his ex-handler was trying to adopt him.

The push to reform Robby’s Law gained national attention a year ago with the case of Army Spc. Brent Grommet and his bomb-sniffing partner Matty, a Czech German Shepherd.

The two went to school together, in this case a tactical explosive detection course, and then to Afghanistan.

The Army retired Matty for medical reasons. In Afghanistan Spc. Grommet put in the required paperwork to adopt him.

Matty was not left behind. He was flown to an air base in New Jersey, as protocol dictated, for needed medical clearance.

Back at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Spc. Grommet lost track of Matty for a while, but then located him at a veterinary clinic in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He filed the adoption paperwork a second time. While waiting, he received the horrible news that Matty had been given to another family.

The Army admitted a mistake, saying, “While regulations dictate that former handlers have first priority for adoption, Spc. Grommet’s request was not forwarded to, nor received by, the Army’s Office of the Provost Marshal General, which manages the program, prior to the dog’s legal adoption.”

The Grommet family began a media campaign to get Matty back. Legislators from his home state of Missouri pitched in.

A White House petition said, “His family likened Grommet and Matty’s relationship to that of brothers, and said the soldier needs his combat buddy for a healthy recovery. He’s desperately sought Matty since their separation, and has begged the new owner to consider a purchase or barter for the dog.”

The new owners eventually agreed to give up Matty to the soldier.

The Humane Association last year announced an agreement with New Jersey’s Red Bank Veterinary Hospital to provide free specialized care to retired canine veterans.

With their repatriation, handler adoption and specialized health care now assured, Ms. Ganzert declared: “This is a great day for military heroes on both ends of the leash. We believe all our veterans — two-footed and four-footed — should come back to a hero’s welcome, a loving, forever home and the happy, healthy and dignified retirement they so deserve after a lifetime of service to their country.”

Don Grommet, Brent’s father, said Matty has adjusted to a life of retirement, chasing tennis balls.

“I know that Matty was as much a part of our lives when Brent was deployed,” Mr. Grommet said. “He and Brent Skyped us whenever possible, and because Brent had Matty, I knew in my heart he would come home. We are a very lucky family.”

• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at rscarborough@washingtontimes.com.

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