LIMA, Ohio — Allen R. Mathews has always had a knack for working with dogs since he was drafted to serve in the Vietnam War. A knack, he said, that possibly saved his life overseas.
Mathews, 64, of Lima, was drafted into the Army just 11 months after he finished high school.
“I got drafted May 1, 1968,” he said. “I went to a Regular Army boot camp training and I went to advanced infantry training. Then I went to a special school because I was a scout-dog handler in Fort Benning, Ga.”
He was deployed to Vietnam on Jan. 28, 1968, and came back to the United States on Jan. 28, 1970, serving exactly two years. His job was to work with German Shepherd dogs to train them to alert to danger.
“Our job was to walk point for the infantry with the dog. That would give us an early silent warning of an ambush, a booby trap, a sniper or somebody that was out in front of us,” he said. “But the wind had to be coming in our direction. It couldn’t be coming up our backs or the dog wouldn’t smell. But he might alert on a noise.”
Mathews said he first landed in Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam and spent a bit of time there getting his dog. But he spent most of his time while deployed in the northern part of the country along the Laotian border, he said.
“When I got off the jet, a big blast of hot air hit me in the face. The smell was unbelievable,” he said. “It was just a completely different smell of the country and it was so strange.”
Things in the country were rough, he said.
“We had to carry a lot of our weight. I carried nine quarts of water for my dog and five cans of army C-ration hamburgers, probably left over from Korea, for my dog. It was really hard going,” he said. “I never knew the human body could absorb so much punishment. I just never thought that we could do that. But the Army put you in a place that you just had to do it. There was no going back. You were there and you had to do it. There were no second thoughts. It was your job.”
But the hard going wasn’t the worst of it.
“I was lucky. A lot of people got killed around me. And I had two dogs over there. My one didn’t make it,” he said, tearing up.
The things that he saw over there will stay with him forever, he said.
“I saw a lot of death and hardship,” he said, wiping at his eye. “It’s something that you never forget. You can’t forget any of that. It’s just like you saw it yesterday.”
He said he believes possibly the only reason he made it back to the states was because he handled the dogs.
“I had two fantastic dogs,” Mathews said. “I think they were probably the reasons that I made it back. Without them, I honestly don’t know if I can say I’d be here.”
That’s why when he arrived back home, he made sure to remain around dogs.
“I had a good shepherd out on the farm and that one gave me six other shepherds,” he said. “I was blessed with dogs in the Army and I was blessed with those dogs when I came out.”
Mathews said while the war has haunted him in a way, it has also made him realize his knack for dogs and his love for the outdoors.
“I probably wouldn’t say I’ve had a normal life since then. I just can’t really explain it,” he said. “But I do like to do wilderness canoe trips. I ride Harleys. I like the outdoors.”
Mathews serves on the Honor Guard at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1275 in Lima, which military rites at funerals.
“I like it here,” he said, looking around the post. “It’s my second home.”