The final years of the Vietnam War were filled with chaos and disappointment. The conflict between the US and Vietcong wouldn't officially end until the infamous fall of Saigon in 1975, but in the spring of 1971 the Nixon administration began pulling troops out of the area, starting a long and messy end to one of America's most unpopular wars.
Through those years, many US soldiers were cycled in and out of the conflict. Some came home in one piece, others in body bags. But there was one group of US veterans who, despite serving bravely and saving countless lives, were either executed or abandoned by the military they served, says former US soldier Rick Claggett. These were the Military Working Dogs of the Vietnam War, who Claggett describes as being considered "surplus equipment" at the war's end. Despite pleas from dog handlers who wanted to take their fellow soldiers home with them, the US military decided to abandon—and likely euthanize—many of the dogs, leaving the rest to the South Vietnamese.
Like many young men of his time, Claggett was drafted into the Army in 1970. Being more of a cat person, the only reason he enlisted in a program for dog handlers was for the extra six months of training in the States—he thought that might be long enough to wait out the war's end. But when he was inevitably shipped out, Claggett ended up forming a close relationship with his scout dog, Big Boy, who he says he still thinks about to this day, nearly 44 years later.
Claggett went on to work for the Environmental Protection Agency for 33 years, and is now retired, living in Denver, Colorado. He joined the Vietnam Dog Handlers Association, giving lectures to various groups on his experiences as a dog handler during the war. Claggett spoke to VICE about what it was like to form a personal relationship with his dog, how Big Boy helped him cope with the stress of war, and why he will never forget having to leave him behind.
VICE: What role did the dogs play in Vietnam, and which breeds were used for which jobs?
Rick Claggett: Labrador retrievers were used for only one job: Following blood trails. So if contact was made with the enemy and they were wounded, then they call in a Lab team—which was the dog and the handler. They used Labs because they're silent trackers. You don't want a Bloodhound or a Beagle, which have an equally strong nose, but make a lot of noise when it's on track. We also trained Labs to alert us of a human ambush or a mechanical ambush.
German Shepherds did everything else, like mine and tunnel. If there was a small Shepherd, they might try to train him to go down into a tunnel. If he was an aggressive dog, he might be put as a sentry dog.
Then there were water patrol dogs. They would put a dog in front of a small boat, and move around the area, because the dog could pick up the scent of somebody swimming underneath the water and breathing through a hollow reed, which humans couldn't detect. There were drug enforcement dogs. And scout dogs, which was what I had in Vietnam. A scout dog's job is to lead a patrol on the field. They're the ones trained to smell out human ambushes and mechanical ambushes.
[As a Scout dog handler] you're the first person in the patrol, and you're pretty vulnerable. Behind snipers and helicopter pilots, dog handlers had the third highest mortality rate.
If the handlers had such high mortality rates in the field, how effective were these dogs at sniffing out ambushes?
They might alert you to a human ambush, but you're out in the open and the enemy knows that they've been detected, so they open up and kill the dogs and the handlers. Four hundred handlers were killed in Vietnam.
I've heard people say that there would be 10,000 more names on that wall in Washington DC if there were no dog soldiers in Vietnam. That's somebody's estimate about how many lives they saved. As far as the dogs' mortality, there were about 4,000 dogs that served in Vietnam over the course of the war, and about a thousand of those dogs were killed, either from direct gunfire, booby-traps, heat-stroke, snake-bite, disease, accidents, old age... a myriad of causes. [Editor's note: As these dogs' deaths went largely undocumented, VICE was unable to corroborate exact numbers with the US Military, though one technical sergeant stated that the facts "sounded correct."]
Were the dogs viewed as just another tool, like a gun or a radio? I imagine you would have to bond with the dog to some degree to have a working relationship.
You have to bond with the dog tremendously. My dog was named Big Boy, and he'd been there for four years. He'd been through several handlers already, so he knew what he was doing. I was the green one. I spent about two weeks with him just bonding, just building up a relationship, so he wants to work with you and you want to work with him.
They weren't a piece of equipment to us. I think I can speak for around 95 percent of the dog handlers that I have talked with since the war, and everybody said, "I loved that dog." It wasn't a piece of equipment like a gun or something like that. It was a living, breathing thing that had emotions and played and did all kinds of dog things. You just fall in love with that dog, and that certainly was the case with my dog, Big Boy.
I was fortunate that not only was he experienced, but he was very friendly. Some guys had aggressive dogs and couldn't take them around like I could. I would take Big Boy with me almost every place I went. And I didn't even have to have him tied up [on a leash], because he would just follow along with me. He was so well-trained. I would go into a club to have a couple of beers, and he would lie down on the floor beside me. It's a wonderful feeling knowing that he has your back.
Was it dangerous even outside of the battlefield?
Yes. There were potential conflicts with South Vietnamese, but there was a lot of racial tension amongst the US soldiers. That's an unfortunate aspect of it, especially with the infantry guys. You're out in the field, your life's on the line, and then you come back and want to get drunk, blow off steam—some of the guys did drugs—and there would be fights between blacks and whites in the rear. But I tell ya, nobody messed with dog handlers, because we had our dogs with us all of the time. People gave us a lot of space.
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How long did you serve in Vietnam?
Just under eight months. A normal tour is a year, but the reason mine was shortened was primarily because our unit was standing down, and they didn't need more dog handlers. This was in March of 1972. I had put in for an early-out to go back to graduate school. So between those two things, I got my tour cut short, which I was thrilled about. The only negative was that I couldn't bring my dog home.
He wasn't going to be used anymore, and there's no good reason on God's green Earth that we could not have brought our dogs back. We would've paid for them ourselves. I was just an E-4, so I didn't make much money. But I sure would've paid for his flight back, and let him live the rest of his life with me. Because he was only seven years old, so presumably he was only through with half of his life. And yet, he was turned over to the South Vietnamese, who didn't work with us and had no idea how to use these dogs. Cultural issues being what they were, the Vietnamese eat dogs.
We're sure that's what happened to our dogs that were turned over to the South Vietnamese. That still bothers me greatly to this day. They sacrificed their lives to save ours.
What was the process like to try and bring your dog home?
We made some phone calls while we were over there trying to convince people, saying, "Hey, let us pay for our dogs to come back!" The problem was we didn't have much time to negotiate this, and we didn't want to jeopardize our going home, we wanted to get the hell out of there as quickly as we could. And once we started pushing this, some people came back and said, "If you guys keep jacking around with this thing, you're gonna be staying here." I don't know how much of a hollow threat that was, but it was enough that some of us backed off.
So it was a set in stone policy of the US military to not bring military dogs home?
Yep. Ironically, we had some 40,000 dogs that served in World War II, and all the dogs that were physically able at the end of the war [came home]. Korea, same deal: [The dogs] came home.
There were some concerns that [the dogs] would pick up diseases; but there was nothing that they could pick up that couldn't be treated. Some people were saying, "These are war dogs! Are they gonna go back to a family situation and freak out when kids start wrestling with them and attack the kids?" No. They can distinguish between war and a home situation. Somebody in Vietnam made the decision that dogs were surplus equipment, and as surplus equipment, they were expendable at war's end. Just like the choppers that we pushed off the aircraft carriers in the South China Sea.
I understand that of the three thousand "surplus" dogs at the end of the war, some were given over to the South Vietnamese, and others were euthanized by the US government. Do you know how many fall into each camp?
No, I never heard statistics on that. My guess is 50/50, but I don't know. I have talked to vet-techs in Vietnam since returning home, who say the toughest thing they ever had to do in their life was stick that needle into a healthy dog, who did nothing more than try to save our lives and protect us.
Do you think any of the dogs that were abandoned made it to good homes?
No. I doubt it. Maybe a handful of them were "adopted" by a Vietnamese family, but that would be rare. I think they ate them. I don't think they had any particular affection for these dogs at all, even though these dogs were saving their lives, too. There was an intimidation factor, because these dogs were so big. Even when we were in the field with South Vietnamese, they stayed away from us, they didn't want anything to do with these dogs.
Has the method of working with dogs in the field changed since Vietnam?
Oh, yes. When I was in training in 1971, they told me "These aren't pets! You don't play with these dogs!" Well, that's bunk, because we did play with our dogs. We didn't throw balls and things that they could fetch, because if you were out in the field and threw a hand grenade, you don't want the dog bringing it back to you. We didn't have any toys for them. Now they've got little chewy toys and stuff like that, and any dog owner knows how much they love these toys. So, they now officially have playtime.
And now they wear flak jackets [body armor]. We never had flak jackets on our dogs, because I guess they assumed the dogs weren't coming home anyway, so if they get killed they get killed. Now they have these flak jackets to protect them, because most of the dogs that get killed die of chest wounds.
They also have a camera on the dogs' harness now. So a handler can send that dog into a house, watch what he's doing on a TV, and communicate to the dog with instructions through a microphone, telling him to go left, right, straight, stay, or sit. The dogs are obedient. They'll follow instructions, and the camera moves around, letting the handler see what's going on in the house. So that keeps the handler out of harm's way in case the dog runs into something in the house. It's really cool.
Was Big Boy on your mind often when you were back home?
Yeah. There was certainly trauma for me, leaving my dog there. But it was probably overmatched by the fact that I was happy as heck to be out of Vietnam and out of harm's way, to not be shot at anymore. But yes, I felt horrible for that dog.
I made some calls to Congressman, and wrote some letters. The problem in Vietnam was that nobody knew that these dogs were left there. Because the only people who knew about this were the dog handlers who wanted to take their dogs back and weren't allowed to do so. A lot of us tried to change that, but nothing happened. It took another war for anything to change.
President Clinton signed a bill [in 2000] that said no military dog would be left behind. We'd like to think [the dog handlers] had a role in that, and we probably did have a small role, but I think there was enough of an outcry after people found out what had happened to these dogs that it was a no-brainer. In Iraq and Afghanistan, when those dogs either get too old or get wounded, they're not euthanized. They're put up for adoption by their former handler. That's the way it should've been in Vietnam.
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