Fri July 25, 2014
Maine Teen Seeks to Honor Dogs Who Died Defending the Nation
Dogs have long been used in warfare, providing help in active duty combat and rescue operations. Today, they often live out the rest of their lives as part of a family. But back in the 1960's, that wasn't allowed. Sentry dogs who defended America's Strategic Air Command centers and patrolled combat zones in Vietnam, died on the battlefield or were eventually put down. Efforts are now underway in Limestone to reclaim an abandoned cemetery dedicated to these special service animals.
Tucked away in the woods, in a remote corner of the old Loring Airforce Base, there's a yard overgrown with weeds and saplings. A snowmobile trail runs right through it, and nearby, obscured by scrub, are the remains of an old obstacle course.
It was here that an elite corps of German shepherds and their handlers honed their skills for active duty, as sentries. Some of these dogs were sent into combat zones. Others stayed in Limestone to guard the nuclear warheads. The dogs' burial ground is also here - somewhere.
"It's kind of sad to see how they're just forgotten. Nobody knows this place exists," says 16-year-old David Cyr, of Presque Isle. Cyr learned about the cemetery from Loring veterans who had returned to the base for a reunion only to find the grave markers gone, and the site unrecognizable.
Now, Cyr is making it his mission this summer to locate and restore the dogs' cemetery as his Eagle Scout service project. "There's three or four pictures that had survived that showed where the crosses were, where the original graves were," he says.
Cyr's whole family - his mother, father and younger brother - are all helping out. David's mother, Jennifer Cyr, says they've been able to piece together some useful information from the dogs' war records, but they're hoping veterans might come forward with more details.
"No one knows exactly how many graves there are," she says. "There is some documentation of some of the animals buried, but you can't say exactly which grave is theirs." She says they'd like to reconstruct the site as close as possible to its original condition 50 years ago.
Northern bases like Loring were considered strategically important in the military's campaign against Soviet-backed communism. In 1968 America's involvement in the Vietnam War had escalated. Kids as young as 17 were signing up for duty, and through films like this one, the military stepped up recruitment of dog handlers and Air Force veterinarians, who would work with what they described as one of their most important assets.
"A sentry dog back then was kind of like a bullet - once you let him go, there was no calling him back," says David Priest. Priest says when a sentry dog attacked, it had to be physically pulled off the target.
Priest arrived at Loring in 1968 to work as a dog handler, guarding the base perimeter before shipping out to Thailand the next year. Sentry duty through Limestone's frigid January nights was the stuff of legends, and he remembers all three dogs who accompanied him on those graveyard shifts: Dirk, Skeeze, and his first dog, King.
David Priest: "King - he wasn't a big dog, he was about 60 pounds, but he was (chuckles) - he made up for it in attitude. He just didn't care for anybody."
Jennifer Mitchell: "Did you find yourself getting attached to these dogs at all?"
David Priest: "Oh yeah. Oh yeah. They were our buddies. You know, I come through here about every two weeks. A lot of times I'll grab my lunch and come down here and sit here and eat it, and remember the dogs."
Some of the dogs who served at Loring were later shipped to combat zones in Vietnam. Brian Treadwell was just a teenager when he was sent to Tan Son Nhut airbase where he worked as a dog handler and sentry. One of the most memorable dogs in the kennel, he says, was a Loring dog called Bomber.
"He was a very, very well trained dog, and probably the meanest dog I saw over there," Treadwell says.
But Bomber isn't one of the dogs resting at the now-overgrown Loring cemetery. Treadwell says none of the dogs sent to Vietnam came home. "When we pulled out we left all the sentry dogs there," he says. "They were considered excess baggage."
Some were given to South Vietnamese soldiers, most were euthanized. Not a day goes by, says Treadwell, that he doesn't think of the dogs he had to leave behind.
Even those that stayed at Loring were euthanized if they could no longer perform. Soon after the Vietnam War, the military transitioned away from dogs trained exclusively to kill, to a program focused on patrolling and detecting. The military now allows their handlers to take them home.
But for the sentry dogs who were taught to be killers, who lived - and lost - their lives in service at Loring, Eagle Scout David Cyr says he's going to do what he can to make sure they're not forgotten, "because they literally gave their lives, from the day they were born to train, to fight. So they're our heroes."