By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - The United States' first national monument to a soldier's best friend, recognizing the sacrifices of dogs in combat, was dedicated by the U.S. military on Monday.
Inscribed with the words "Guardians of America's Freedom," the nine-foot tall bronze statue at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, features four dogs and a handler.
"These dogs were patriots just as much as anybody else who served," said military dog handler John Baker of Fallon, Nevada, whose 212th Military Police Company Detachment A was known as "Hell on Paws."
Lackland is home to the U.S. Armed Forces center that has trained dogs for all branches of the military since 1958.
The sculpture, built with private donations, features the four major breeds used since World War Two: Doberman Pinscher, German Shepherd, Labrador Retriever, and Belgian Malinois.
In World War I, a pit bull named Stubby helped sniff out poison gas, was promoted to sergeant, decorated for bravery by General John Pershing, and became the mascot for Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
During World War II and in Korea and Vietnam, dogs were used as sentries, scouts, and trackers. In Iraq and Afghanistan, dogs have detected improvised explosive devises (IEDs) and roadside explosives.
Larry Buehner, who served in Vietnam as a platoon scout with the Army's First Cavalry Division, said he is alive because of his military dog.
"Callie saved my life on at least one occasion," he said on Monday of the dog that accompanied him and his unit on jungle patrols.
John Burnam, who handled dogs during the war in Vietnam, said he got the idea for a memorial after military officials decided not to let dogs working in Vietnam return to the United States with their handlers.
"They were heroes, and they were left to die," said Burnam, who has written two books about combat dogs.
"Dog units are worth a million dollars for everything they do ... You can't say enough, you can't give enough accolades to them."