How Military Dogs Are Treated in Combat Zones

Ken Tudor, DVM
April 28, 2015
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I can still hear Hawkeye and Trapper yelling orders to the 4077th M.A.S.H. nursing and support staff as they evaluated wounded patients outside the surgical tent. Their job was to patch up the less serious wounded and get them back in combat. The more serious they tried to save with surgery and eventually return them to the battlefield or ship them home for more specialized treatment. Little has changed, especially field treatment of our military working dogs.

As explained in the last post, which featured Army Veterinary Corps Lieutenant Colonel Dr. James Giles, military working dogs are the first to enter hostile buildings or encounter hidden explosive devices. Hopefully they subdue the enemy fighters or detect the booby-trap bomb for safe disposal. Because they are the first-in, these dogs are often targeted by enemy snipers or are injured during their attack on enemy occupants of buildings. Many are wounded by explosives that are manually detonated from afar or by suicide attack. Like their human counterparts, these dogs need medical care. The stages of treatment for military dogs are just like that seen on M.A.S.H. and relived every day in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Stage 1 Treatment

The first line of treatment for military dogs is the field medical staff. They are treated by the same medics that attend to the wounded soldiers. The military, with the help of veterinarians like Dr. Giles, have developed training programs for medics so they can adequately stabilize and/or treat wounded dogs in the field. If the injury is minor, military dogs are treated in the field like soldiers and immediately returned to duty. If the injury requires veterinary care, the dogs are evacuated by land or air to the next stage of medical treatment.

Stage 2 Treatment

Stage 2 treatment areas can be any makeshift location and is staffed by one veterinarian and his or her support staff. These facilities are very limited compared to your veterinary hospital, so it requires veterinarians to be imaginative and creative in their care of wounded patients. Dr. Giles showed a slide of intravenous tubing used to temporarily replace a section of severed artery until a dog could be transported to a facility that could perform an arterial graft. For this dog, treatment was in Germany and, ultimately, the U.S. Those dogs that cannot be adequately treated and returned to duty from a Stage 2 treatment area are then moved to the next level of veterinary care.

Stage 3 Treatment

Dr. Giles, a board certified veterinary surgeon, works at a Stage 3 treatment facility when he is deployed to Afghanistan. He works with only one other veterinarian as the staffing for these hospitals is limited to two doctors, of any specialty, and their support staff. 

Dr. Giles's hospital is a tent, just like in M.A.S.H. Fortunately, his hospital is adjacent to a human hospital and, when possible, he uses that facility for advanced care of his patients. Because this is the highest level of veterinary care in a war zone, Dr. Giles treats the most serious cases that need extended hospital care. As mentioned in the previous post, the attack dogs require the presence of their handlers at all times in order to control them for treatment. The bond between handlers and their dogs is incredible. Dr. Giles showed multiple slides of handlers curled up on the floor, on cots, or in any makeshift area in his hospital tent with their dogs, who were hooked up to fluids or other lifesaving equipment.

Many stage 3 wounded are treated, repaired, and returned to combat, but some are flown to the American military medical hospital in Germany for more treatment, or are finally flown to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas.

I apologize that I cannot present the riveting slide show that Dr. Giles shared, but I hope my words have given you some hint of the life of our military dogs and their medical treatment when they are injured in combat.

Dr. Ken Tudor

Image: Military Working Dog in Afghanistan, UK Ministry of Defence / Flickr (Image has been cropped to fit page specifications.)