The founder of the company I worked for the last 20 years of my career was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Duluth Air National Guard. He was an exceptional man in many ways, founding a company based on the belief that there had to be a way that the synthetic oil used in the jets he flew could also be used in cars. Thus was the synthetic oil market generated.
In addition to his passion as an entrepreneur, he had a passion for dogs, donating thousands of dollars to the purchase and training of dogs for our local police departments when there was a needed vacancy to fill.
One one occasion years ago he loaned me a copy of a historical documentary about the use of dogs in the service of our military. Being a dog person as well, I was moved by the many stories of servicemen in Vietnam whose lives were saved because of their dogs’ bravery.
The dogs would sometimes smell the enemy before our soldiers could see them, thus avoid being ambushed. One soldier who had been shot was dragged to safety after he’d been shot in an open area.
In trying to find this documentary recently I located several other stories instead. This article is about the 2500 canines trained to detect mortars, sniff out drugs and protect troops around the world today. It talks about the history of training dogs for combat starting in 1958.
But the San Antonio Magazine article notes that dogs have been used in war for much longer than these recent decades. Denise Sypesteyn wrties, “Dogs’ heightened senses have been used by militaries since the Roman and Greek eras, when menacing-looking Mastiff breeds equipped with full armor and spiked collars were sent into battle.”
The documentary that I watched ten or so years ago included footage of German Shepherds being used in World War I and II.
According to Wikipedia dogs had also been used by the Egyptians, Persians, Slavs, Britons and many others. Even Attila the Hun used specially trained dogs when he went to battle.
Dogs weren’t only used for fighting. They were used for logistics and communications, or simply as mascots for their units. Dogs were also used as scouts, sentries, search and rescue, and for tracking. Different breeds have different sets of skills, much like we ourselves.
What prompted me to create this painting, however, was a heartbreaking segment of that original documentary I saw. At the end of the Vietnam War, as American G.I.s were shipped home to the U.S., the dogs were left behind and put to death.
It was feared that they might have picked up diseases in Southeast Asia, that the risk was too great to bring them home. Some of these tough men who went through hell openly wept at having to see their dogs put to sleep. 4,000 dogs were killed in all.
My painting depicts this impending moment. The soldier in this painting is facing home, toward the horizon. His loyal companion faces a different direction, symbolic of their two destinies. Only one is going home. The dog’s trust is what makes the moment so painful for the soldier who must soon betray his best friend.
In 2010 I had the painting scanned by Custom Photo Lab in Duluth in order to print a limited number of giclée reproductions. Next weekend the original painting will be auctioned off as part of a fundraising gala for the Duluth Art Institute.
Few, if anyone, who reads this on Medium will be attending (you live all over the world) so I doubt you will end up owning the original. The prints are, however, available for purchase. You may email me for details. email@example.com
FWIW, HBO has since produced a documentary called War Dogs honoring the dogs who served and continue to serve.