Stormy stopped. She sensed something ahead. Danger. Her handler, Ron Aiello, didn't see anything, but he had learned to trust the instincts of military dogs, especially Stormy's. He dropped on one knee at her side, peering in the direction she was looking.
It was just in time.
A sniper's bullet whizzed over his lowered head.
"Without Stormy, if I had just walked into that clearing, that sniper would have taken me out," Aiello said. "She saved me that day." And it was that day where Stormy joined the ranks of military dog heroes.
Aiello, a Marine, served in Vietnam with Stormy from 1966 to 1967 as one of the first thirty Marine Scout Dog Teams to be deployed to Vietnam. He has dozens of stories about Stormy saving him and others. While some are as dramatic as the sniper incident, other stories show that military dog heroes saved soldiers in other important ways too.
"I remember one Marine asked if he could pet her and he sat down and hugged her and let her lick his face and they were like that for about ten minutes. When he got up, he was calm and ready. I saw her have that effect on people a number of times," Aiello said. "She was really a therapy dog for all of us. I honestly believe if I'd been there without Stormy I'd be a different person today. We had a great friendship."
Aiello was given just a day's notice that he would be leaving Stormy's side when his thirteen-month tour was up. While he would be heading home, she would stay in Vietnam. A new handler would take his place by her side.
That night, Aiello slept with Stormy in her kennel. The next morning he fed her, patted her, and then walked away.
"That was the last I ever saw of her," he said.
He was heartbroken to leave his friend behind.
Honoring His Friend by Helping Other Military Dogs
Now, fifty years later, Aiello is honoring his wartime friend by making sure military dogs are taken care of for the rest of their lives. Aiello is the president of a nonprofit organization called the United States War Dog Association, which he founded with the help of other Vietnam veteran dog handlers as a way to honor past military dog heroes and care for current ones.
When the group first began working together in 1999, its goal was simply to raise money for a national war dog memorial. Hill's Pet Nutrition supported the cause with donations of items like T-shirts, jackets, and bandannas that the group sold at fundraisers.
"Hill's was a big help," Aiello said. "We raised a lot of money with their support."
But then 9/11 happened.
"So the war memorial was put on the backburner and instead we started sending care packages to dogs and handlers that were deployed," Aiello said. Hill's again stepped in, this time with donations of treats to be included in care packages. Aiello isn't sure how many care packages the group has sent through the years.
"I stopped counting at twenty-five thousand," he said.
As the war in the Middle East continued to grow in scope, so did the needs of the war dogs, Aiello said. So the U.S. War Dog Association began a medical expense program for military dog heroes, paying for treatments ranging from PTSD to chemotherapy.
There are 351 former war dogs currently enrolled in the medical care program, Aiello said.
The nonprofit also gives military working dog awards to deserving dogs, complete with bronze medals and plaques and helps handlers with the costs associated with adopting their military dogs.
The association also finally completed its original goal: The United States War Dogs Memorial was dedicated in 2006. The memorial is located at the gateway of the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Holmdel, New Jersey. It consists of a bronze statue showing a kneeling soldier and his dog–a position similar to the one Aiello found himself on that day when Stormy saved him from a sniper.
Stormy's Fate Is Unknown
Aiello tracked down the three handlers who worked with Stormy in Vietnam after him.
"They could all tell me that she was still there leading patrols and finding explosives and still doing a great job," he said.
But the news dried up after 1970. After he left the service, Aiello wrote the U.S. Marine Corps asking to adopt Stormy. He never heard back. To this day, he still doesn't know what happened to her. She could have been killed in action or–like so many dogs who served in Vietnam–was euthanized, deserted, or turned over to the Vietnamese when the Americans left.
Aiello is relieved to know that while it's too late to save Stormy and the other dogs that served their country in Vietnam, their fate should never befall another war dog.
A 2000 bill signed by President Bill Clinton requires all military working dogs suitable for adoption to be available for placement after their retirement. Because working military dogs are highly trained, fiercely loyal, and may have unique medical issues, all retired dogs available for adoption go to the Department of Defense Military Working Dog Adoption Program. More than 300 dogs are adopted through the program each year.
Another bill, this one signed in 2015 by President Barack Obama, guarantees the safe return of all retired military dogs to the United States after serving abroad. In the past, the handlers often had to come up with the funds to transport the dogs home. Organizations like the U.S. War Dog Association help pay those costs.
Aiello will never forget Stormy and the important role she played in his life and others' who served with him in Vietnam. He hopes his work with the U.S. War Dog Association honors her memory and the American lives she saved, including his.
"No matter where I was or what I was doing in Vietnam, I had someone to talk to and someone protecting me," he said. "And I was there to protect her. We had a great friendship. She was the best friend anyone could ask for."
Image source: Ron Aiello
Kara Murphy is a freelance writer in Erie, Pa. with a goldendoodle named Maddie. Her grandfather served in WWII and her uncle served in Vietnam.