Soap Star Champions Dogs Who Died in Vietnam

Patrika Darbo has been relishing her hard-won fame as the first heavyset actress to play a sexy siren on a major TV soap opera. And after beating the odds to win her coveted role on “Days of Our Lives," Darbo hasn't forgotten other underdogs.

She's championing the cause of some forgotten patriots – the dogs who died to save American soldiers in Vietnam. About 4,000 of the combat-trained dogs saved the lives of countless GI's by falling on mines or leaping at an enemy.

It All Started …

Even now, three years after Darbo watched a PBS documentary about the canines, she chokes back tears remembering it.

"I was watching this man just being interviewed, and in his hand he had a police dog leather leash. He was turning and turning it," she said. "He was walking point, leading patrol, and all of a sudden his dog stopped, looked at him and gave a little bark. His dog died saving the entire patrol."

Darbo was so moved that she contacted the Veteran Dog Handlers Association (VDHA), which strives to erect monuments and other tributes to the heroic animals. "If they didn't die, they were left behind," she said.

Their handlers were left with the pain of loss and no way to repay their guardians. "All they did was give love and protection, and they left them behind, and when they did die, we didn't keep records," said Darbo.

On the popular NBC soap, Darbo has remodeled the image of a TV vamp. At size 20, she plays a wealthy, sexy woman married to a handsome rake who's CEO of the local hospital. In another groundbreaking move, the pair is portrayed as deeply in love, although distracted by a mutual penchant for scheming and conniving.

Darbo is currently an Emmy Award nominee. Last year she hooked the "Best Newcomer" award from Soap Opera Digest and was voted one of the 16 sexiest people on TV in an issue of TV Guide last summer.

Loved Animals As a Child

Her kinship with animals dates to her childhood in Jacksonville, Fla., when she and a brother and sister kept a series of dogs, "usually two at a time." The pets helped the children through a traumatic time. Darbo has said she started overeating while living with her grandmother after her parents divorced.

She said she's never tried to analyze why she's so intent on helping downtrodden pets – as well as giving to children's causes. "They don't have a voice," she said. "I think we have a responsibility as human beings. As the Bible said, we've been given dominion to take care of the animals and the children."

When Darbo won $36,000 on Wheel of Fortune a few years ago, she gave half to the German Shepherd Rescue Bank of Burbank, Calif. And in 1989, during the filming in Texas of Daddy's Dying with Beau Bridges, Darbo and her co-star rescued two puppies from a litter that a farmer, who allowed filming on his property, wanted to kill.

She adopted one of the small mutts, Shooter, who's now 10. The animal shares the Los Angeles home with Darbo and her husband, Rolf, along with Darbo's cairn terrier, Rocky – now 14 and stricken with diabetes.

The VDHA and the War Dogs Memorial Fund raised funds for a sculpture of a soldier and his dog that was dedicated at March Air Force Base in Riverside, Calif. in February. Another memorial is planned for installation at Fort Benning, Ga.

Darbo applauds those efforts, but has concentrated on what she believes would be the most significant tribute – a commemorative U.S. postage stamp. The dog-veterans groups have tried and failed twice to get the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee to recommend a hero-dog stamp to the U.S. Postal Service.

Darbo collected hundreds of signatures on petitions and focused her efforts on pressuring the government rather then raising money for the cause. "I think they feel you or I would spend more money to get a Bugs Bunny stamp," she said.

Dogs Make It to TV

Meanwhile, dogs have made their way onto the small screen with Darbo. On "Days," she and her handsome, conniving husband, played by Kevin Spirtas, own two toy poodles.

It takes sleight of hand to make one performer believable, said Darbo. "The little white one, whose real name is Louie, we have to keep turning him over, because, on the show, he's a little girl."