WASHINGTON — Capitol Hill is divided these days. Impeachment hearings are leaving public servants cast as spies and saviors, connivers and guardians.
Perhaps that is why applause for a stuffed pigeon in a plexiglass case seemed particularly vigorous in a Senate building on Thursday evening. The bird has been dead for 58 years, but during World War II, he saved more than 100 allied soldiers by flying 20 miles in 20 minutes to deliver a message that aborted an imminent bombing by friendly forces. His name was GI Joe, and he was one of the eight recipients of a new charity-sponsored medal of bravery for American war animals.
Organizers, members of Congress and animal handlers present said the awards were long overdue. Some called it a historic day. A few wept. One of GI Joe’s postwar caretakers — who said the pigeon’s speed on that fateful day was likely assisted by a tail wind — teared up as he patted the bird’s case. Now, as then, GI Joe did not waver.
Against the backdrop of impeachment, that theme stood out: No matter that the honored animals — five dogs, two pigeons and one horse — almost certainly did not know their nation’s mission or enemies. They knew their jobs and did them with nary a peep, bark or neigh. Some speakers mused about why the animals acted bravely, citing loyalty to pack, adoration for handlers, and programming by training. Everyone said they were heroes.
“Let the record show: Sergeant Reckless was a lot more courageous than I,” former Virginia Sen. John Warner, a Korean War veteran, said of a horse who served in that war.
Reckless knew to run for cover during incoming fire, shared tents with fellow Marines, enjoyed beer and bacon, and most important, carried 9,000 pounds of ammunition in 51 round trips over steep, frozen hills during the 1953 Battle for Outpost Vegas. The mare was later named a staff sergeant by the Marine Corps Commandant.
Animals have served in battles for as long as war has been waged. Dogs are most common now, but Hannibal used elephants, Genghis Khan rode horses, and the U.S. military has recruited bats, dolphins and chickens. Since 1943, an animal welfare charity in the United Kingdom has awarded the Dickin Medal, a rough equivalent to the Victoria Cross, to war animals. But while Reckless received two purple hearts, there’s not much pomp these days for nonhuman veterans on this side of the Atlantic.
Calls to honor war animals were energized last month after Conan, a Belgian Malinois, was injured while helping U.S. forces take down ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria. President Donald Trump praised the military working dog’s “GREAT JOB” and tweeted a photoshopped image of himself placing a pawprint medal around Conan’s neck. Veterans have called publicly and in petitions for a real purple heart for the dog, for which the Pentagon says he is not eligible.
“Mr. President, if you’re watching this morning, I brought one of my own purple hearts to present to the dog, if you’d like me to do so,” Army veteran Daniel Gade, recipient of two purple hearts and Republican candidate for Senate in Virginia, said on “Fox & Friends” this month. “The handler will have that as something that he can have forever. The dog obviously doesn’t care, but they’re a heroic part of the team and we should honor them.”
New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, D, meanwhile, slammed the “fake medal” in Trump’s “Twitter stunt,” and instead called for the Department of Defense to give an official commendation to Conan and his handler. Legislation sponsored by Menendez and signed by Trump in 2018 required the armed forces to create a “Guardians of America’s Freedom Medal” for military K-9 teams; the department did not respond to questions about the status of those awards.
“Conan really helped prove our point,” said Robin Hutton, who has authored books about Reckless and animals in World War II and spearheaded Thursday’s event. “We might do a special ceremony for him. He’s so big that we wouldn’t want him to overshadow the importance of the other animals.”
Hutton said she got the idea for the awards — officially called the “Animals in War & Peace Medal of Bravery” — after accepting a Dickin Medal on Reckless’ behalf in 2016 and wondering why such an honor didn’t exist in the United States. Her goal is to open an international war animals museum in the Washington, D.C., region and give medals annually. The event was sponsored by her charity, Angels Without Wings, and the National Marine Corps League.
In addition to Reckless and GI Joe, other animals posthumously given medals were Chips, a pet husky mix whose family volunteered him for service in World War II; Stormy, a German shepherd who helped capture enemy soldiers during the Vietnam War; Lucca, who lost her left front leg to one of the many roadside bombs she detected in Afghanistan.
Also honored was Cher Ami, a World War I pigeon shot down by Germans while carrying a crucial message — “OUR OWN ARTILLERY IS DROPPING A BARRAGE DIRECTLY ON US. FOR HEAVENS SAKE STOP IT.” Wounded, Cher Ami took to the skies again, delivering the dispatch with her right leg hanging by a tendon. Although her body is on display at the National Museum of American History, a museum spokeswoman said Cher Ami was unable to attend the event, in part because the pigeon is one-legged and fragile.
Richard Vargas, manager of the Defense Department’s Military Working Dog program, told those gathered that for all the talk about courage, the canine troops’ service is motivated by two fairly simple things: praise and reward.
“The dog doesn’t know whether it’s getting a friggin’ award or not!” Vargas said after the award ceremony. “Recognition for dogs is important because it spurs public interest.”
The two living animals there for medals seemed to confirm this. Bucca, a former stray who overcame a rough past to become a star arson-detecting K-9 for the New York Fire Department, glanced around the room as her handler placed the shiny golden medal around her neck.
Bass, a Belgian Malinois who held the rare position of “multipurpose canine” in the Marine Corps’ Special Operations Command until retiring a month ago, was there with his former handler, now pet parent, Staff. Sgt. Alex Schnell. On the dog’s collar were four ribbons signifying combat action and deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. They weren’t official: Schnell said he’d purchased ribbons meant for humans and glued them on Bass’ collar.
“I think dogs should rate awards, for sure,” Schnell said. “They’re out there on the ground, just like service members are. A lot of times they get put in the most dangerous positions, because they’re out in front.”
Bass hardly seemed to notice as Schnell draped the new medal around his neck before the fawning crowd Thursday. Schnell then went to the podium, where he spoke of Bass’ “very special” bravery, and joked that Bass expected everyone present to “present him with a toy and/or some scratches in homage for his service.”
Bass stood, unleashed and still, in front of the podium as Schnell spoke. When the Marine’s speech was finished, he tossed Bass the reward the dog seemed to have been waiting for: a tennis ball.
Bass caught the ball in his mouth, then sat at his human’s feet and chewed it contentedly.