FORT JACKSON, S.C. — Gabe, a weapons sniffing dog at Fort Jackson who conducted 210 combat missions in Iraq, is now the American Humane Association’s Hero Dog of the Year.
The grand prize was $10,000 to support other service dogs and handlers now fighting in Afghanistan.
A secondary payoff was getting to meet Betty White during last month’s award ceremony at the Beverly Hills Hilton in Los Angeles. The ceremony will air at 8 p.m. on Nov. 8 on the Hallmark Channel.
“That was the highlight,” said Gabe’s handler, Sgt. 1st Class Charles “Chuck” Shuck. “Just to be in her presence was amazing.”
Gabe – possibly the only dog in America with more than 33,000 Facebook friends – wasn’t starstruck.
“He was just his normal self,” Shuck said. “But I did get him to bark during the standing ovation.”
Gabe represented the military against dogs in seven other categories, from police dogs to guide dogs. And the 10-year-old lab mix was lucky to be there.
He was rescued as a puppy from a Houston shelter just one day before he was to be euthanized. And he and Shuck survived in 2006 when a roadside bomb struck the vehicle they were riding in.
But the other contestants had amazing stories, as well, including Roselle, a guide dog who led her blind owner to safety from Tower One of the World Trade Center during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“When people see the stories of the other seven, you’re going to see that any of the dogs could have won this award,” Shuck said.
The grand prize brings Gabe’s winnings to $15,000. As the military category champ, Gabe already has won $5,000 for the nonprofit United States War Dog Association, which gives out “care packages” to dogs and handlers fighting in Afghanistan. There, dogs serve as trackers, find roadside bombs, locate weapons hidden in buildings and work highway check points, among other duties.
The care packages can contain goggles and boots for the dog; ear muffs to protect their ears from loud sounds during helicopter flights, ear wash, eyewash, cooling vests and toys, said Ron Aiello, president of the New Jersey-based association.
The money will help the organization continue the care packages, find homes for retired military dogs and also help with the transportation of the adopted dogs to their new homes, Aiello said.
Through their Facebook page and public appearances, Gabe and Shuck were able to win the most votes out of about 3 million cast online in the hero dog contest and won over the celebrity judges, which included White and Whoopi Goldberg.
Shuck, now a Senior Drill Sergeant Leader at Fort Jackson’s Drill Sergeant School, said the campaign also is a way to promote adopting shelter dogs.
“He was a pound puppy,” said Shuck, 33, a Pennsylvania native and military policeman who did three tours of duty in Iraq. “It shows that you can take a dog from a shelter and with a little training it can save lives.”
Shuck of Lansford, Pa., and Gabe met in 2006 at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas – one of the military’s main working dog training facilities.
They shipped to Iraq in 2006. While there, another dog team they trained with – Cpl. Kory Weins and Cooper – were killed by a roadside bomb. They were the first dog-handler team to be killed together since Vietnam.
Although the military doesn’t release the number of dogs and handlers killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the War Dog Association estimates the number at 60 to 70 each — with about 600 dogs presently working in Afghanistan, Aiello said.
The use of dogs has increased dramatically in the past five years, and they are credited in part for the reduction in the number of soldiers killed by roadside bombs
While in Iraq, a vehicle Shuck and Gabe were riding in was hit by a road side bomb, but they weren’t injured. They also survived a shootout with insurgents while checking an Iraqi town for weapons.
The two were stationed with field artillery units, and Gabe eventually became sensitive to the loud booms of the guns. Today Gabe, who has gone from a slim 67 pounds during his fighting days to 98 pounds in his retirement, is frightened by thunder, perhaps a bit of canine PTSD.
But even in retirement, Gabe can help his fellow dogs and handlers by winning the competition, Shuck said.
“It brings to the national stage the amazing work these dogs are doing down range,” he said.