Military K9s, Handlers Get National Monument

At the 2013 Tournament of Roses Parade, millions of viewers across the country got a preview of the nation’s first monument, to be dedicated in October, that salutes military working dogs and their handlers.

For the past four years, the Rose Parade float sponsored by Dick Van Patten’s Natural Balance Pet Foods has featured company mascot Tillman the Bulldog and buddies skateboarding, snowboarding, surfing, and even dock diving. But this year’s Natural Balance float for the Jan. 1 parade in Pasadena, Calif., took a more serious tone, saluting America’s military K9 teams.

The 55-foot-long float featured a floral replica of the bronze and marble U.S. Military Working Dog Teams National Monument, set to be dedicated at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where all military dogs are trained.

The actual monument, which was put on display at an event after the parade, portrays a 91/2-foot-tall military dog handler with the four primary military working dog breeds: Doberman Pinscher, German Shepherd Dog, Labrador Retriever, and Belgian Malinois.

In an interview an hour before the parade began, Dick Van Patten and son Jimmy Van Patten said this year’s float theme was special for the company and everyone involved, even the Rose Parade float judges. Every year, the judges are excited to see our float,” Dick Van Patten said. “But this year, after they judged our float, they had tears in their eyes — and they all applauded!” 

Joey Herrick, company president and the creative genius behind the over-the-top dog floats, said it has been fun setting Guinness World Records each year with the longest, heaviest, or largest float, but the 2013 float is special. “We are a part of history here,” Herrick said. “This monument and recognition for our nation’s military dogs and dog handlers is long overdue.”

Some of the nation’s top military working dog handlers and their dogs accompanied the monument replica in the parade, and spoke about the amazing bond they had established with their dogs.

“Lucca would go on air assaults with me in Iraq for six or seven hours, and then she would come back to the barracks and want to play fetch with all the guys,” said Marine Gunnery Sgt. Christopher Willingham. “She did amazing work on the battlefield, but then she also raised morale for all of
us with her temperament — just being a dog.” 

In hundreds of missions, Lucca, an 8-year-old Belgian Malinois, detected more than 40 improvised explosive devices, saving countless fellow Marines, before losing her left front leg during her last deployment to a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. Her handler on that fateful day, Marine Cpl. Juan Rodriguez, applied a tourniquet and stayed with her, saving her life. “She saved my life many times before I got a chance to save hers,” Rodriguez said after the parade.

Another hero dog featured on the float was Army K9 Gabe. While deployed in Iraq, the Labrador Retriever completed more than 210 combat missions, with 26 finds of explosives and weapons. In 2012, Gabe was named top American Hero Dog of the year by the American Humane Association.

Now retired, Gabe and his handler, Army Sgt. 1st Class Charles Shuck, work to help educate the public about the invaluable service of these dogs to our country. Shuck is a no-nonsense, tough Army sergeant, but like all of the K9 handlers, has a soft spot for his dog. “When Gabe turned 10 on Dec. 26, I drove 50 miles just to get him a special dog birthday cake,” Shuck said with a sheepish grin.

The monument has been a labor of love for many involved in the project. When asked what the monument means to him, Larry P. Chilcoat, treasurer of the monument project, reached for his wallet. “I handled Geisha in Vietnam, she and I were partners for one year, and I have kept this card with me for 43 years,” he said. 

The monument is funded solely by donations, with principal sponsorships by Natural Balance, Petco, and Maddie’s Fund. Learn more at

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