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  • James Meleney

Hero Dogs and Valor Portraits

Honoring Those Who Serve

For many of us November is a time to celebrate our veterans, but there’s a small group of veterans often overlooked – MWD’s or Military Working Dogs. As an animal artist and veteran I have the incredible privilege of working with this unique group to honor their service and sacrifice through my exclusive Valor Portraits. Valor portraits are fitting tributes to active and retired K9’s who selflessly commit their lives to country, community and you. More about these one-of-a-kind portraits later, first let me tell you more about these courageous heroes.

I’d like to take you on a journey through the world of military dogs, exploring their history, the impact they make, and stories of their incredible valor.


Dogs didn’t have an official role in the US military until the creation of the Army K9 Corps in 1942. Unofficially they joined American troops in battle since earliest days of our country, and many are still remembered today.

Sallie: During the Civil War, troops marching off to battle brought dogs along as unit mascots and companion among the most famous was Sallie, the mascot of the 11th Pennsylvania Infantry. She was with the unit from puppyhood, licking their wounds and lifting their spirits. In 1890, a life-size bronze statue of Sallie was erected on the Gettysburg Battlefield to honor her legacy.

Stubby: During World War I Stubby was a stray smuggled into Europe by a soldier with the 102nd Infantry Regiment. He charmed troops by responding to bugle calls and learning how to salute, but more he alerted soldiers to gas attacks and even captured a German spy dressed as a US soldier. Ultimately Stubby served in 17 battles.

Chips: In World War II a German Shepherd-Collie-Husky mix named Chips served overseas as one of the members of the newly our K-9 Corps. During the invasion of Sicily in 1943 he attacked an enemy machine gun team firing on his platoon and although wounded was credited with saving the lives of his comrades.

Gabe: During Operation Iraqi freedom, a pound puppy named Gabe was adopted and trained for military detection service. His record of service is impressive having racked up 26 finds of insurgent explosives, ammunition, and other weapons during his 170 combat patrols. He retired in 2009 and was adopted by his handler Sgt. 1st Class Charles Shuck.

Lucca: a Marine Corps explosives detection dog, Lucca served deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq during her six-year career leading 400 patrols and identifying 40 improvised explosive devices (IED). She retired in 2012 as was adopted by her original handler, Gunnery Sergeant Chris Willingham.

Photo by Tapio Haaja on Unsplash


Today it is hard to quantify how many soldiers have been saved by military working dogs, but estimates are intriguing.

In World War II, it is estimated that 20,0000 military working dogs contributed to saving 15,000 men.

During the Vietnam War, it is estimated 4,000 military working dogs contributed to saving 10,000 service member lives.

Today there are 2,500 military working dogs in service with 700 serving overseas at any time. Since Vietnam they have directly contributed to saving over 27,000 service members.

This impact comes through extensive training and development of each animal. More than 1,000 dogs are in training at any given time. They are trained by a specialized staff of 125 service members from all branches of the military. All dogs must complete a 17-week advanced training course with their assigned handler with ongoing professional training provided throughout their career.

Only 50% of dogs in training will make it through to graduation and certification. The cost to train each dog, depending on specialization, ranges from $20-$50,000. A fully trained explosives detection dog is worth over $150,000.

Each dog will serve 8 – 10 years, depending on their health. Over 90% are adopted upon retirement.


Now, I’d like to share a story about the dedication, courage and valor of one of the many unsung military working dogs - Valdo.

Petty Officer 1st Class Valdo was a Navy military working dog trained to smell explosives under the watchful eye of his handler Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class, Ryan Lee. Though Valdo was a veteran at bomb and improvised explosive device detection, the 7-year-old patrol dog’s abilities were tested on an April 3, 2011. Valdo, working a combat patrol with Red Platoon, Bulldog Troop, 7th Squadron, 10th Cavalry Regiment north of the Bala Murghab in Badghis province, Afghanistan, came under intense machine gun and rocket fire.

Valdo was seriously injured by a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) blast. He absorbed most of the grenade’s shrapnel, saving the lives of four other nearby service members who were wounded but able to continue the fight.

Treated on the field by a by the platoon medic, a fellow team member carried Valdo two kilometers to Combat Outpost Metro where was air evacuated to Forward Operating Base Todd. Once there a doctor stabilized Valdo then sent him on for further treatment. Valdo recovered fully from his wounds and returned to full duty at Naval Station Rota, Spain with Petty Office Lee. Valdo was finally adopted by Lee upon retirement from the service.

Valdo is only one dog from a vast network of military K9s, who all train through the Department of Defense’s Military Working Dog program, conducted by the 341st Training Squadron at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. All military branches rely on MWDs for the vital roles they serve.

I relate this story to honor and celebrate the service and sacrifice of these brave animals. In the words of George H. W. Bush “We must tell these stories so that our children and grandchildren will understand what our lives might be had it not been for their service and sacrifice.”

You too can help by raising awareness of Military Working Dogs on social media, donating to a charity that supports K9 veterans, and honoring a K9 vet you may know with an exclusive Valor Portrait I offer here.

Valor Portraits are fitting tributes to active and retired K9’s who selflessly commit their lives to service for country. Each portrait is a heartfelt tribute to the unwavering devotion and courage displayed by these heroes.

I would consider it an honor and privilege to hear your stories, meet your hero and craft a personal testament to them in a Valor Portrait. Click here for more information or call me at (216) 317-8738 to talk about your canine hero and their amazing story.

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