No one can tell you a dog is man’s best friend like Alan Meeks. While serving in Vietnam, Meeks was saved twice by his German shepherd war dog, Artus — all within eight months.
Artus entered the war in 1966, was given to Meeks when he arrived in April 1970, and was killed on Dec. 11, 1970. Still, not a day passes that Meeks doesn’t owe his life to that dog.
“I’m here today because of my dog. He was a good boy,” he said.
During the year Meeks was in Vietnam, 12 dogs were killed, one of them being Artus. However, none of their handlers died.
“We had one handler who was wounded that year, but we never had one who was killed,” he said. “They’re good dogs.”
Despite being man’s best friend, a war dog is grouped into the same category as a rifle or a tank—they’re equipment.
“In Vietnam, equipment was expendable. As the war came to an end, they were shoving million dollar helicopters off of ships, so the value of a dog was far less,” he said.
During the Vietnam war, around 4,900 dogs were used. Of those, 296 were killed in action, and approximately 600 dogs died of medical issues or disease after the war.
As the war deescalated, a quarantine program was started where soldiers were given the option of donating their dog to the South Vietnamese or having them euthanized. Black dogs would not be taken because they were thought of as a bad omen, Meeks explained.
“Then, most of the dogs — like the dog I had — didn’t really care for the Vietnamese people, so they definitely wouldn’t have taken them,” he said.
So with the black dogs out and many not being favorable to hand over to the Vietnamese, an astounding 2,500 were euthanized, according to Meeks.
“It’s a very sad time in history,” he said.
Since then, strides have been made to keep so many dogs from being unnecessarily put down. In 2000, a law was passed stating that no dogs can be euthanized unless the dog can’t be rehabilitated or has a severe medical condition.
After the dogs have completed their time in the service, around the age of 10, they must be rehabilitated and put up for adoption.
Currently, there are around 2,700 war dogs serving worldwide, according to the Defense Department. Around 600 of these dogs are in war zones overseas.
Last year, 300 dogs were retired, with six of them being euthanized.
“The other 294 were adopted out, which is very great. Very great,” he said.
While progress has been made, Meeks is still hoping the dogs will be reclassified out of the category of equipment.
“We still have not got that done yet,” he said.
With more dogs being adopted out, more dogs are in need rehabilitation services.
The U.S. War Dogs Association, which was established in 2000, has been working to bring the history of all U.S. military war dogs to the public, as well as helping in the process of adopting retiring canines.
“These dogs have been trained to do really specific jobs, and they have to bring them back. And just like a lot of the guys who come back, they have to retrain them and get them out of whatever mode they’ve been in most of their life,” said Ken Fisher, commander of VFW Post 1152.
The organization also works to send packages overseas to war dogs and their handlers and to buy equipment for the dogs.
“The military doesn’t always have all the equipment for military dogs. It just depends what unit they’re in, but we’ll buy cooling vests or goggles or booties for their feet,” he said. “We’ll also send out care packages with dog treats, dog toys, things like that.”
Last year, 16,000 packages were sent.
“We’ve come a long way. Me personally, I wish I would have gotten involved years ago, but Vietnam was something that I would have liked to forget,” Meeks said.
On Sept. 8, a VFW Riders Bike Run will be held to raise money for Chapter 3 of U.S. War Dogs Association.
The ride will begin at VFW Post 1152, 920 N. Washington St., with sign in at 9 a.m. and the first bike leaving at 11 a.m. Cost is $10 per rider and $5 per passenger. There will be food and prizes.
For more information, call 438-4361. To learn more about the history of war dogs and how to help, visit www.uswardogs.org.