The estimated 4,000 dogs who worked alongside and protected U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War are credited with having saved more than 10,000 American lives. Those brave, loyal dogs—risking, and sometimes losing, their lives—led their handlers and others through jungle thickets; alerted soldiers to snipers, tripwires, and other hidden dangers; and detected mines, tunnels, and even underwater enemy fighters. In return for their service, when American troops departed Vietnam for home, the U.S. government—over the futile protests of handlers and other soldiers—classified the dogs as “surplus equipment” and left for dead all but an estimated 200 of them. It was a shameful, incomprehensible, and indefensible choice that caused these canine veterans (and the people who cared about them) terrible suffering and anguish.
Last month, a photo depicting 18-plus carriers confining dogs in front of a helicopter at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul went viral. The photo sparked outrage around the nation as rumors that the U.S. government had again left dogs behind spread like wildfire. PETA received calls from all over the world alleging that nearly 200 dogs, including dozens of working dogs and American evacuees’ stranded companion animals, were in danger of being left behind. It was hard to distinguish fact from fiction given the chaos surrounding the U.S. Armed Forces’ exit from Afghanistan, so PETA immediately wrote to the U.S. Central Command and the Department of State, outlining the allegations and asking for the government’s intervention to secure the welfare and safety of these vulnerable dogs and their human caretakers.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby—asked the following morning in an interview if the government was having to make a “tough decision” and possibly leaving behind “military contract working dogs”—said that he was not aware of the issue and stated, “obviously we are partial to our working dogs, and they are heroes in their own right.” Mr. Kirby later tweeted: “To correct erroneous reports, the U.S. Military did not leave any dogs in cages at Hamid Karzai International Airport, including the reported military working dogs. Photos circulating online were animals under the care of the Kabul Small Animal Rescue, not dogs under our care.” Within minutes, the online news and social media world were again flooded with memes, news items, and posts assuring Americans that “[t]he Pentagon confirms it DID NOT leave any military service dogs behind in Afghanistan.”
That is at best only a half-truth and not what the Pentagon actually said—for a reason. The U.S. evacuated the working dogs owned by the U.S. government. Still, it seems that “due to regulations,” other working dogs and companion animals, along with dozens of dogs and puppies rescued from the streets of Afghanistan, were not permitted on military evacuation flights. Sources tell PETA that many soldiers and other military personnel were extremely kind and eager to help get these dogs out of Kabul. Yet, nearly 150, including 50 or so contract working dogs who served and protected U.S. troops as valiantly as the dogs owned by the military, were left behind: “released” into a “relatively self-contained” compound on airport grounds “with appropriate supplies of food and water” according to a letter PETA received from a major general with the U.S. Central Command. This was not a time to hide behind “regulations” to escape doing the right thing for the dogs and the people who care about them.
According to the White House, in the last 24 hours of the U.S. evacuation, 26 military flights carried 1,200 people out of Kabul. C-17 planes can carry 336 passengers during humanitarian efforts, but inside sources tell PETA that the military was authorized to carry up to 450 people per flight during this operation. So 26 planes flew out an average of 47 humans per plane when there was room—on each plane—for at least 400 additional people. Apparently, those in charge could not summon the compassion and decency to fit 150 dogs on any of those flights.
A dog is a dog—they all suffer the same, no matter who they belong to. Imagine 150 frightened dogs and puppies, among them family companions who have never had to fend for themselves or survive outdoors, competing for food, water, and shelter in dangerously hot weather and hostile conditions. We understand that some have already perished. Thankfully, there are people on the ground who remain dedicated to helping these dogs, but the U.S. government should not have deserted them.
If only we were as loyal to dogs as they are to us.
• Daphna Nachminovitch is the senior vice president of PETA’s Cruelty Investigations Department; www.PETA.org.