MENOMONEE FALLS, Wis. — Jerry Witt survived 365 days in Vietnam because of his buddies Skip and Satan.
Satan and Skip were soldiers, but their dog tags were tattooed in their ears and their weapons were their noses and keen eyesight.
Skip was a German shepherd/collie mix, while Satan was a black Labrador retriever. And when Skip was killed, the loss of his buddy felt like a punch to the gut to Witt, an Army dog handler assigned to support 1st Cavalry Division infantry units.
“He got into a trip wire during the monsoon season when it’s raining 24/7 and of course rain washes away scent. He froze in a trip wire. He turned his head and basically told me — ‘Don’t come any closer, I’m in trouble,’ ” Witt recalled. “He tried to back away but the trip wire got caught in his body harness and exploded, wounding him in three places.”
Skip was flown out of the Vietnamese jungle and survived surgery but died a week later from a staph infection.
“Skip saved my life many, many times,” said Witt, a member of War Dogs, a Wisconsin group dedicated to honoring the memory of military canines.
It’s no secret militaries have used dogs for decades, but more people are learning of America’s furry warriors as news reports have spotlighted heroic dogs such as Cairo, the Belgian Malinois assigned to SEAL Team Six in the Osama bin Laden raid.
Among many tasks, they patrol bases, sniff for explosives, find improvised explosive devices, capture bad guys, track missing people and comfort wounded service members.
Menomonee Falls-based War Dogs honors four-legged fighting forces by marching in parades, appearing at shows and giving presentations on the history of war dogs — anything to spread the word about a little-known part of American military history.
War Dogs members own pups representing breeds used by the U.S. military. The group includes one dog that served in Afghanistan, a black Lab named Flo owned by a Germantown woman whose son was Flo’s handler in the Marines.
To commemorate military canines, War Dogs raised $5,400 for a 6-foot-tall gray granite statue that will be unveiled June 22 at Village Park in Menomonee Falls. Participating in the monument dedication will be law enforcement dogs and their handlers, veterans groups and War Dogs members and their pups. Also, Army dog handlers who served in Vietnam are coming from Colorado, Minnesota and Illinois to attend.
There are no dues and no meetings; War Dogs members simply show up to march in parades or give presentations with their pooches in tow.
The only requirement is they must wear the War Dogs T-shirt emblazoned with the logo “Hell on Paws — America’s Unsung Heroes of All Wars” while their dogs wear camouflage bandannas.
Also, members’ dogs must be among the 16 or so breeds used by the U.S. military, including German shepherd, collie, Labrador retriever, Belgian Malinois, Airedale, boxer, beagle, Newfoundland, husky/malamute, giant schnauzer, standard poodle, pit bull and Jack Russell terrier.
Carol Singer and a friend started War Dogs in 1999 after she researched the history of Doberman pinschers during World War II. Singer, who has a 9-year-old Doberman named Bella, works at Menomonee Falls pet store Friends of Nature and through her network of dog owners she spread the word of War Dogs.
For years the group attended Reclaiming Our Heritage, a military-themed event held on the Milwaukee VA grounds, and appears each February at Great Lakes Pet Expo at State Fair Park handing out fliers explaining the mission of War Dogs.
“It started with one parade and snowballed from there,” Singer said.
Whenever War Dogs marches in parades — next on the schedule are Memorial Day and July 3 parades in Menomonee Falls — the group lines up in a single file with its dogs on leashes. The response is often overwhelming and emotional, particularly from veterans.
“At parades we see men wearing World War II caps stand and salute,” said Tracy Hays, owner of an American Staffordshire terrier named Kestrel.
Always bringing up the end of the War Dogs line of pups in parades is Carolyn Summers, who carries her Yorkshire terrier D.D. in a military helmet.
Many people are surprised a pint-size Yorkie was a war dog, but D.D. represents a Yorkshire terrier named Smoky who was discovered in a New Guinea foxhole in World War II. Smoky carried telegraph wire through a narrow pipe at an airfield, flew on rescue missions and visited wounded soldiers.
Summers contacted Smoky’s owner, William Wynne, to let him know she was honoring Smoky’s service after reading his book “Yorkie Doodle Dandy,” which featured a photo of Smoky inside a G.I. helmet. The 91-year-old Wynne wrote back from Ohio thanking her for remembering Smoky.
Hays’ dog Kestrel represents a terrier named Sergeant Stubby who spent 18 months with an American infantry division during World War I and is credited with capturing a German spy and saving his unit by alerting them of a gas attack.
During Vietnam, most U.S. military dogs were either German shepherd mixes or Labrador retrievers. Handlers such as Witt trained at Fort Benning, Ga., and then picked out a dog once they arrived in Vietnam, carrying three days of dog food along with their own gear on missions.
Often they were targeted by the enemy because the dogs were so effective at tracking. Witt was told enemy soldiers bringing back a dog’s ear and a handler’s dog tags earned extra money.
Of the 48 soldiers in Witt’s dog training class at Fort Benning, only 13 survived Vietnam. Sadly none of the U.S. military dogs returned to America at the end of the war. Witt knew dog handlers who signed up for additional tours of duty to spend more time with their dogs because they knew they couldn’t bring them home.
Classified as “equipment” and not military personnel, half of the American military dogs were euthanized at the end of the Vietnam War while the others were given to the South Vietnamese army or left to fend for themselves.
“It became a very sore subject to me and my fellow handlers. It was tragic. These dogs, they were like people, for them to do that was despicable,” said Witt, whose dog Satan was given to another handler in Vietnam when his tour was up in 1969.
Witt and other military dog handlers from Vietnam lobbied Congress to change the rules and bring dogs back to America once their service in a war zone is over. In 1992, President Bill Clinton signed legislation that now ensures all military dogs are treated like true veterans.