Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 11, 2013

A different kind of veteran


---- — TRAVERSE CITY — The email arrived in Doug Davis' inbox during a late October evening.

"Doug you have no clue," the soldier wrote about Davis' dog, Remmy. "He really did save my life on several rough missions in 2004 finding IEDs, booby traps and personnel protection in crowds."

The soldier explained that Remmy had, on countless occasions, put himself between squads of Americans and danger. He had saved lives. He was a hero.

The soldier wanted to know that the dog who had protected Americans' lives for more than four years in Afghanistan, including time working in the Helmand Province, had found a safe place back home. He wanted to know that the dog who never will receive veteran's benefits or medals from the country he served would live out his life comfortably.

Remmy, a 12-year-old Dutch Shepherd, recently sprawled on the family's living room floor and flipped a toy in circles with his nose as Davis explained the string of emails that followed.

Remmy's put on a few pounds in his retirement, but his ears still perk and scan the room every few seconds, listening for anything out of place.

"Remmy saved his bacon quite a few times," Davis said. "These guys have done a lot of work and deserve to retire."

When Davis agreed to adopt Remmy more than two years ago, he and his wife, Pam, knew the military service dog would come with baggage. They had a couple years earlier adopted a military service dog named Ringo after his owner fell ill.

Ringo died a few years later after living a comfortable retirement in the couple's Old Mission Peninsula home.

Davis still keeps a two-inch-thick folder of Ringo's service records. He received little more than a single sheet of paper to explain Remmy's service. What the couple knows about him came from the men who served with him.

Davis knows that Remmy, like Ringo before him, becomes nervous in certain situations, like during the rifle salutes at military services. And he gets uneasy in crowds.

Still, Davis knows more about what Remmy's been through than the average person.

That's because, in 1966, he enlisted in the Air Force and eventually was shipped to Phu Cat, Vietnam, to serve as a patrol dog handler.

Davis volunteered to work as a dog handler despite knowing that service would shift him outside the protection of fortified bases and likely would bring him face-to-face with enemy fighters.

"I'd much rather be over there with a dog than in a bunker or a tower," he said. "Any dog handler will tell you the reason they came back is because of a dog."

Davis said his dog, Smoke, a Malinois, guided him through hundreds of night patrols in Vietnamese jungles. The dog that had been trained to detect enemy fighters and attack kept his handler alive long enough to go home safely.

Davis learned a few years later that Smoke died of a severe kidney infection while still serving as a sentry. It was news that, although grim, comforted Davis in some ways.

"I would much rather know that he died peacefully," he said, patting Remmy on his thick back. "At the end of the war, they killed all of our dogs. I would say all the handlers would have taken their dogs home."

Just a fraction of military service dogs that served in Vietnam came home.

Still, it took nearly four decades before Davis owned another dog.

"I had not had a dog since I got out of the service in 1970," he said. "There are just a lot of bad memories."

Times are different now. Dogs are allowed to come home and a few nonprofit organizations cropped up to help find them homes. Still, they are classified as equipment, not veterans.

It's a fact that is tough to reconcile for a soldier like Davis, who's certain he would not have come home if not for his four-legged comrade.

Today, there are four service flags hanging in a window adjacent to Doug and Pam Davis' front door.

One of the flags represents the couple's son, who still serves in the Navy, and three others represent veterans in their lives — one for Pam's father, a World War II veteran, and one each for Ringo and Remmy.

And this morning, at a ceremony celebrating Veteran's Day, Remmy will stand alongside Davis and his other brothers in arms to receive the honor they deserve.