Tails of Heroism: Military Dogs Take to Capitol Hill

Zoey DiMauro
By Zoey DiMauro | July 25, 2014 | 9:41 AM EDT

Decorated veterans, both human and canine, went to Congress yesterday to advocate for the reunification of military dogs and their handlers. "I waited three and a half years for him, but I'd wait more if I had to," said Marine Corps Sergeant Deano Miller of his yellow Labrador Thor. "I even told them, if he's ten years old and has one leg, I'll still take him."

Over 2,500 dogs like Thor have worked in Iraq and Afghanistan sniffing out weapons caches and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The American Humane Society estimates that the work of just one war dog saves the lives of 150-200 service men and women. However sometimes the dogs are retired overseas and left in kennels or with locals, permanently separated from their battle buddies.

"I really didn't think I'd ever see her again," said Army Staff Sergeant Jason Bos of his service dog Cila. After a back injury forced him to retire from the Army, Cila was sent to work in Germany. But, by keeping in touch with her new handler, Bos was eventually able to bring the chocolate lab home. "Now Cila's a couch potato," Bos reported. "She can eat whatever she wants, just be like a regular retired person, and I'm really grateful for that."

Bos first met Cila at Lackland Air Force Base for military canine training when she was one year old. There, servicemen get matched with a compatible dog and learn how to work with the animal. Military or contract working dogs often serve the military, police or rescue missions for years, changing hands multiple times.

Service dog Thor had five deployments with five different handlers, but his first was with Miller in Afghanistan in 2010. With the help of an organization called Mission K-9 Rescue, Miller was able to retrieve Thor when the dog's service was over.

"I had anger issues and I didn't sleep very well," said Miller of his return to civilian life. With his dog back, "everything's a lot better now."

"These dogs are miracle workers ladies and gentlemen," Congressman Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.) said at the event. He spoke in support of his new bill, the "Creating Options for Veterans Expedited Recovery Act" or the "COVER Act,'' which will examine new ways to help veterans suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome. The more creative options including service dogs, musical therapy, acupuncture and outdoor sports therapy.

Congresswoman Dina Titus  (D-Nev.), a cosponsor of the bill, had advice about how to get the legislation passed. "I served in the state legislation a long time before coming to Congress and we always had a rule: if you wanna get your bill passed, just show up with a dog," she explained.

Every speaker touched on the deep bond created between the soldier and his dog during the dangerous and often lonely experience of war. Kristen Maurer, the president of Mission K-9 Rescue, spoke about how distant and reserved many veterans she speaks to seem "unless they're talking about their dogs. Then, they tend to lighten up and get animated-- these guys can talk about their dogs all day long."

Congressmen Don Young (R-Alaska) spoke about the impact dogs have had in his life. "I'm the only dog musher in the whole Congress," he said, "I've had five labs in my life and I'll not have another one till I get ready to die because that separation is that hardest thing I've ever had to do."

"Dogs are magical creatures," said Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), "because they can turn a rusty, cranky, old curmudgeon like Don Young to seem almost loveable and be so pleasant - so, hats off to the dogs!"