South Texas man in drive for national war dog memorial

FULTON -- A former Air Force sentry dog handler in Vietnam has one more mission: He's working with others to honor military canines with a national monument.

"Our war dogs deserve recognition for the lives they saved," said Larry Chilcoat, who patrolled the combat perimeter of Camp Cameron, Vietnam, throughout 1969 with a German shepherd named Geisha.

"It's been 40 years, and I have a beautiful wife and granddaughter, but I don't carry their pictures," said Chilcoat, 62. "But I still carry a photo of Geisha; she changed my life."

The dog, he said, "was my lifeblood in a jungle nightmare, and we both relied on each other day and night to survive. She heard things I didn't and let me know, and I knew she would die to protect me."

Military dogs saved more than 10,000 lives in Vietnam, according to the U.S. War Dog Association. Of about 4,000 dogs that served in Vietnam, more than 200 died while on duty, said the retiree, who lives in Fulton, about 35 miles northeast of Corpus Christi.

Chilcoat is one of three former military dog handlers who received Pentagon approval in January for a proposed Military Working Dog National Monument.

The veterans presented plans for a bronze pedestal with a soldier and four dogs, designed by Brian Rich of Fairfax, Va. He's the uncle of a Marine Corps dog handler, Cpl. Dustin Jerome Lee, who was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade on March 21, 2007, in Fallujah, Iraq.

Lee's bomb-sniffing dog Lex, who was wounded, was adopted by Lee's family, said Rich, 35.

"It's helped my family with the loss of my nephew and motivated me to design the monument," the graphic artist and former Marine said.

Chilcoat said Pentagon officials loved the design.

He, project founder John Burnam of Bethesda, Md., and Richard Deggans of Plano are returning in mid-April with a clay model being made by bronze sculptor Paula Slater of Hidden Valley Lake, Calif.

Chilcoat, Burnam and Deggans, who are among more than 10,000 Vietnam War dog handlers, met through the Vietnam Dog Handlers Association. Their push to honor their dogs led to President George W. Bush signing legislation in 2008 for a monument to be built and maintained with private donations. A location is tentatively planned at Fort Belvoir, Va. Organizers have raised about $20,000 of the $850,000 estimated cost.

Pigeons, dolphins, horses and other animals have served in wars since World War I, said Burnam, 62, who served in the Army from 1966 to 1968. But no animal has done as much as dogs, which have served as sentries, scouts, trackers and patrol leaders, he said.

Burnam and his scout dog led infantry patrols. It's obvious to him why the dogs deserve recognition.

"We were the tip of the spear, detecting sounds and movement in the jungles that led to ammunition caches, underground tunnel complexes and entrenched enemies," he said.

"If the dog's body goes rigid, they cock their head, perk ears, fix their eyes -- you know it's dangerous. You certainly don't want to go where the dog doesn't want to go. They saved my butt from enemy fire several times."

In one incident, his dog alerted as they led a patrol into a clearing, he said.

"We hit the ground, ambushed by enemies in bunkers," he said. "We laid behind a 10-inch-diameter tree trunk, with enemies firing in front of us and our guys firing over our heads. If we would have moved either direction, they would have blown the hell out of us."