Tuesday, September 18, 2018

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At long last

Tribute at The Highground recognizes service of military working dogs 

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    Volunteers Dan and Loretta Scheunemann recently perform landscaping work around a memorial dedicated to military working dogs and their handlers at Highground Veterans Memorial Park outside of Neillsville. The tribute was unveiled Saturday.

    Milwaukee Journal Sentinel photo by Mark Hoffman

Crouched down, two soldiers — one with two legs and the other with four — stare straight ahead intently as if they are looking for the enemy.

The two-legged soldier has one arm on his weapon and the other around the four-legged soldier, his partner and protector.

“These dogs were your eyes, your ears and your nose,” said Mike Olson of Holmen, who enlisted in the U.S. Army and served as a sentry dog handler in the Vietnam War.

“They were soldiers, and their service needs to be honored,” said David Backstrom of Eau Claire who served as a medical corpsman in the U.S. Navy in Vietnam.

Thanks to the efforts of Backstrom, Olson and others, the service of military working dogs will be remembered and recognized for decades to come.

On Saturday, the Military Working Dog Tribute, an effort years in the making, was unveiled at The Highground Veterans Memorial Park, west of Neillsville.

For more than 100 years, “the military has used dogs as tools,” said Jon Weiler, executive director of The Highground, which pays tribute to the U.S. military dead and honors the survivors, their service and their sacrifices. “They were like any other tool we had. Now, it’s different. People realize what these dogs have done, what they have sacrificed.”

Dogs of war

It is estimated that about 4,900 dogs were used during the course of the Vietnam War between 1964 and 1975, according to The United States War Dogs Association.

Only 204 dogs exited Vietnam during the 10-year period. Some remained in the Pacific, some returned to the United States, but none returned to civilian life.

“The Vietnam era was not kind to those animals,” Olson said.

He was one of approximately 10,000 handlers to serve in the Vietnam War. Even though he left Vietnam in 1970, he has never forgotten Prinz 10X8, a 7-year-old German shepherd already with two one-year tours under his collar.

“He knew what he was doing much more than I did,” Olson said, chuckling.

He and Prinz, a sentry dog, guarded the perimeter of a base camp in Cam Rahn Bay, meaning they walked along the edge of the jungle with Olson watching the shepherd’s every movement.

“As a handler, you (needed) to learn his alerts,” said Olson, referring to the cues the big dog would give him when he sensed something that shouldn’t be there.

“Although some dogs alert differently, Prinz would bring his ears up, his body would go rigid and his concentration was focused on whatever sound, sight or smell he sensed.”

In the Vietnam War, dogs also were used as trackers, scouts and mine, booby and tunnel detectors.

“These dogs saved a lot of lives, and they were very much a part of your life,” said Olson, who recalled reading his mail in Prinz’s kennel.

The pair were separated after four months of working together. Olson was assigned to work as a veterinary technician, and Prinz was assigned a new handler. However, man and dog still saw each other because Prinz was in the kennel where Olson worked, and Olson would take him and some of the other dogs out to exercise them.

Eventually, Olson was sent home, but leaving Vietnam was bittersweet, he said. “You were so glad to leave Vietnam, but you didn’t want to leave your dog.”

Decades later, Olson still has a photo of the black-and-tan Prinz on his desk. 

Building a tribute

Backstrom started working on the Military War Dog Tribute after he was deeply touched by the story of a friend’s husband, a military dog handler who was killed.

The soldier was drafted in 1966, and when he arrived in Vietnam, he began training with a German shepherd named Satan, a scout dog.

“His dog became his best friend,” according to a letter from the soldier’s wife, which Backstrom shared in 2014.

The soldier was killed, and Satan was wounded in a firefight in June 1967, but the dog survived and later returned to duty.

Inspired, Backstrom, who has been going to The Highground for almost 30 years, felt it was important to tell their story and went to park’s board. Members agreed there should be a tribute to a soldier and dog.

Since then, a committee, including Backstrom and Olson, was formed, about $200,000 was raised, and La Crosse sculptor Michael Martino was chosen to create the life-size bronze sculpture of a German shepherd and a soldier holding an M-1 rifle and his dog’s harness.

“You were working together, you were training together, you were forming a bond,” Olson said. “That’s a bond that lasts a lifetime, and that’s what we wanted to capture. I think we did.”

Contact: 715-830-5838, christena.obrien@ecpc.com, @CTOBrien on Twitter

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