Book Review: K-9 Soldiers: Vietnam and After

If you're a dog lover, action-films aficionado and an avid reader, K-9 Soldiers: Vietnam and After may be just the kind of adventure to get your adrenalin flowing.

Scenarios in this colorful 1999 volume by Paul B. Morgan (Hellgate Press, $13.95) range from the thickly forested war zones of South Vietnam in the 1960s and '70s to K-9 security duty in United States' businesses, where the German shepherd's trademark qualities of bravery, moxie and versatility are keenly exemplified.

The Vietnam War was different from any Americans ever fought. In the others, the opponents were coming at U.S. troops from all sides. Here, you often didn't have a clue where they were hiding until it was too late. Hence, the German shepherd, whose hearing is 20 times keener than his handlers', represented a fighting chance for America's foot patrols.

One of the best was Suzie, a 45-pounder that could scent explosives, detect drugs and identify Viet Cong in seconds. In fact, Morgan and Suzie were so effective they had prices on their heads.

Suzie was a personal dog of the author's, not an Army issue. Morgan obtained her from a French priest, Father Tu, in exchange for a .38-caliber pistol and a set of sterling silver rosary beads.

"The best trade I ever made," says Morgan.

Tu, president of Suzie's fan club, said, "God protects dogs from the knowledge of death so they will be brave and serve their fellow man. Because of their unconditional love, devotion, humility and honesty, all dogs are rewarded in the afterlife with the equivalent of heaven."

Suzie was, as I like to characterize, a Velcro dog – she accompanied Morgan everywhere – in foxholes, on the point in jungle probes, rescue missions of downed helicopter crews, on parachute jumps (yes, that's right) and in interrogation sessions.

If there's a shortcoming in this crisp, fluid narrative, however, it's the author's failure to give some closure to the status of each four-legged companion.

For instance, after myriad details of Suzie's heroics, Morgan shifts scenes. He suddenly reflects on returning stateside after his first Vietnam tour and discusses an assignment as the Army Operations officer for the Armed Forces Police in New York City.

But what happened to Suzie? Was she left behind in Vietnam with a new handler? Did she accompany him to the United States and become his personal pet? We're left hanging.

Morgan said, during a phone interview from his Smithtown, N.Y., home, Suzie was returned to the priest. He later found the dog had died but didn't ask under what circumstances.

On a second tour of duty in Vietnam, beginning in 1970, his new partner was Polar Bear, a white German shepherd that had been wounded in the face and left shoulder by small-arms fire. Polar Bear's previous partner had been killed in action and the dog had turned on every soldier who attempted to befriend him. Eventually, Morgan and Polar Bear struck up a friendship that was to last only about a year before the gallant dog was killed in action by mortar fire.

A good portion of the soft-cover volume is devoted to Morgan's return home and establishing a small K-9 patrol service in Lexington, Ky.

While the author's dog-duty detail is sharp, because of his access to military-police records, some of the volume's production leaves a bit desired. On two occasions, the review copy I received had duplicate pages.

Throughout K-9 Officers, Morgan's reliance on his four-legged partners draws a major emphasis. This, consequently raises the question: Have the armed-services canines been given short shrift in this country?

Many would argue a resounding yes.

An incident in the closing chapter is a case in point. When Morgan, his wife and their German shepherd Cody approached the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Veterans Day 1994 to participate in a special ceremony, they were turned away by a Park Service ranger because dogs were not allowed at the wall.

Even after explaining they were to participate in the ceremony, they were directed to leave the area. As they headed to a nearby open field they quickly found themselves surrounded by about 50 veterans, many of whom were members of the Vietnam Dog Handler Association. "Welcome home" was the constant upbeat greeting.

Representatives from many units participated. Morgan and Cody were invited by two members of the VDHA to accompany them to the wall, the same site from which they had been ejected an hour earlier.

The VDHA veterans carried a wreath memorializing approximately 4,000 dogs and their handlers who served in America's longest war. Cody sat at the foot of the wreath once the procession was completed, eying the big crowd.

Did this provide some closure for Morgan to the Vietnam experience?

"It was nice to have the visual recognition for the dog, but there's much more work to be done to get these dogs the respect and recognition they deserve," he says.