Owner: Military dogs 'should be considered soldiers,' not equipment

Posted May 21, 2013 5:15 p.m. EDT
Updated May 21, 2013 5:54 p.m. EDT

— At Womack Army Medical Center on Fort Bragg, man's best friend can sometimes do what medicine cannot. Jasmine Russell, a military wife and owner of a therapy dog named Brit, says she see it all the time.

“For that little bit, they feel … a little happiness. It's not so bad, for just a little bit,” she said of the injured troops. “If you watch (Brit), he loves soldiers. The uniform is a magnet to him.”

Brit shares a bond with the soldiers he helps because he was once among them, serving as one of the highly trained military working dogs that sniffs out narcotics. He even received a medal for his service in combat. Russell adopted Brit after a leg injury forced the Army to retire him.

The U.S. Department of Defense classifies dogs like Brit as equipment, and Russell wants that to change.

“Those dogs should be considered a soldier and not just a computer, a desk, a number, and this is all they are,” she said. “A lot of people, when they hear military working dogs, they automatically think fangs, teeth, mean, vicious, they can take somebody apart, and we want to show (them), this is not the case.”

Russell says the dogs deserve the right to a decent retirement and other benefits.

“If they should get injured, they have a right for a burial. That's the least we can do for them to get them off the equipment status and just acknowledge that they have blood flowing through their veins and they save tons of lives in their lifetimes,” she said. "That little bit is not going to mean a lot for the government, but it means a lot to the people who served with (them).”

Spc. Alphonzo Campbell, who is being treated at Womack Army Medical Center for a wound to his calf muscle, doesn’t have any family in North Carolina but has bonded with Brit, one of his few visitors.

“If this was my dog, I would classify him as my brother,” Campbell said.

Russell says that camaraderie should be acknowledged.

"They laid in the dirt with them. They shared whatever they had to eat. They covered their backs," Russell said. "(Brit and the other dogs) walked ahead of a whole bunch of troops. Detecting explosives without the dogs, a lot of the troops would've never come home."

Rep. Walter Jones, a Republican who represents the state’s 3rd Congressional district, proposed new legislation for the retired dogs last year. Part of it passed, and the dogs now get medical care and transportation provided for adoption. But military working dogs are still classified as equipment instead of the proposed "canine members of the armed forces" classification.

“We need to get these animals reclassified, instead of being equipment,” Jones said. “We're going to continue to push, and (Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel) has the authority, if he determines that we should reclassify.”

Jones says he does not plan to introduce another bill. Instead, he plans to meet with Hagel to push for more change. Jones says the change would not cost taxpayers.

“The cost is not that big a factor for this reason: legislation sets up nonprofits who can participate in the taking care of these animals after these animals leave the military,” he said. “These dogs are very special for those men and women who have been fighting for this country, who have seen these animals give their life for their comrades. They're very special.”