Friday, January 30, 2009

Friends Forever

A headline caught my eye on the Fox 5 animal webpage where our puppy cam is hosted. It read, Family Allowed to Adopt Fallen Son's Dog. The December 2007 article told how Lex, Marine Corporal Dustin Jerome Lee's K-9 partner, sat whipering from his own injuries, and had to be pulled away from the slain Marine's side after the deadly mortar attack. The bond between the the dog and the Marine compelled Corporal Lee's family to adopt the 8-year-old German Shepherd. The military, however, expected Lex to perform two more years of service.

The family knew that their son would want Lex to live with them. They already had Corporal Lee's first canine partner, Doenja, living with them. The Lees lobbied the military for months, launched an Internet petition and sought the help of North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones, (R. N.C) before Lex was given special permission to retire from the Marines to live with the Lees.

This real life story reminded me of a book I read two years ago. Cracker! The Best Dog in Vietnam. This book is so much more than a heart-warming, gut wrenching story embedded in the horrors of war. Newberry award winning (Kira Kira) author Cynthia Kadohata focuses on the power of the human animal bond during a time in U.S. history that is rarely discussed. When Rick Hanski signs up for the army, leaving the security of his Wisconsin home and a waiting job in his Dad’s hardware store, he is ready to “whip the world.” Hanski, however, quickly begins to second guess his decision and ability when, as a dog handler, he is teamed with strong-willed German Shepherd named Cracker.

Initially, Cracker is leery of everyone. She does not understand why her former best friend, a boy named Willie, gave her to the army. Hanski and Cracker, however, soon develop an understanding and form a bond that goes beyond friendship; they become one of the most sought after and respected U. S. Army dog search teams in Vietnam.

The novel, recommended for ages 10 and up, is told alternatively through Hanski’s and Cracker’s points of view. It is graphic, but not gruesome. Kadohata does not sugar-coat the heroics of the dogs for reasons based on facts. An author’s note reads “...at the war’s end [dogs] were considered surplus military equipment. Although precise records were not kept, most historians agree that at least 4,000 dogs served during the war and are credited with saving some 10,000 human lives. About 1,000 dogs died from combat, jungle disease or other reasons. At the war’s end, only approximately 200 dogs were reassigned to other U.S. military bases. The remaining dogs were either euthanized or given to the South Vietnamese Army. The fate of those dogs remains unknown.” The book has a bitter-sweet ending. Cracker and Hanski survive the war. Unfortunately, true to the hazards of war, other characters, dogs and soldiers, do not.

According to the article about the heroic Marine team of Corporal Lee and Lex, the military currently has 1,700 dogs working alongside American troops. These relationships, real and fictionalized should be noted and celebrated. I cried when I read about Hanski's reunion with Cracker. I cried, too, for Corporal Lee, for his family and for Lex, one of the best dogs currently living in Mississippi.

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