SAN ANTONIO — Four-legged warriors are in the spotlight after the revelation that a military dog accompanied the Navy SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden.
One of the largest training centers for military war dogs is at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. The rapidly growing program is credited with saving a lot of American lives, especially in Afghanistan.
The canines are trained to attack to protect their handlers. But, more than that — they protect entire teams of soldiers and marines by sniffing out hidden bombs.
“I don't think they can be replicated,” said Staff Sgt. Randy Jensen, a military dog trainer. “The dogs can do things that we are not going to be able to do with any kind of machine."
Lackland has nearly 700 dogs at the 400-acre training center.
The Marines reportedly have increased the number of bomb-sniffing dogs in Afghanistan from just nine a few years ago, to more than 350 today, with plans to nearly double that number.
"You have to be patient,” said Army Sgt. Russel Minto, who handles logistics for the dogs at Lackland. “You are working with an animal that can't speak. They can't communicate with you except by the different behaviors they show."
Sgt. Minto has a staff of 63 who care for the dogs.
It takes two hours each morning and night just to feed them — 26,000 pounds of dog food a month.
Lackland also started its own breeding program for Belgian shepherds, a favorite for military canines.
For the sick and injured, or wounded veteran war dogs, the Holland Military Working Dog Hospital provides not just physical care, but research on what might be called canine PTSD — post-traumatic stress disorder.
“The dog is trembling,” said Dr Walter Burghardt, looking at video of a dog deployed in combat. “It's in a crouched position; his ears are almost pinned back. You can almost infer a distressed look on that dog's face."
The bin Laden raid put these warriors on the front page. But they're increasingly on the front line, where several dozen have lost their lives in service to the U.S. military.