THE DOGS WE LOVED: BABE
Babe, born in November of 1967 and Preston branded with alphanumeric 84A4, was the dog I trained at Lackland with and brought to Vietnam in January of 1970. She was a beautiful young German shepherd and a good worker and very affectionate.
Since I became Company Clerk shortly after arriving in-country I did not walk Babe on sentry duty. So most of my recollections of her were from my Lackland training period. I had originally been assigned a large Great Dane mix named Duke, and Babe had been assigned to my good friend and Lackland roommate Mark Arnold. The two dogs were very different from each other. Duke was big and wayward, with a mind of his own that did not take into account the wishes of his handler. Babe, smaller and more self-controlled, was much more accommodating. We noticed that she would not defecate in her outdoor kennel area and would wait to do so until her handler took her out for training and began walking her. Duke on the other hand would dump his load all over his kennel area, step and re-step in it with vigor, and then jump up and smear his by now filthy paws all over my fatigue shirt in a morning ritual he never varied from. Since we had to clean up after our dogs before daily training began, it wound up taking me the longest of all the handlers to clean up after the shit-crazed Duke, whirling dervishly around me. It was not a good way to start the day.
Eventually I had a lot of trouble subduing and controlling Duke and it was decided that because Mark was bigger and broader than I, we should exchange dogs. Mark was game and took it with good grace, but please believe me when I tell you that despite what was now happening to Mark it was the happiest day of my life thus far.
Training with Babe turned out to be a dream by comparison, albeit one with snags of its own. She had been very well trained, possibly because this had occurred while she was still technically in puppyhood. But she turned out to be a very subtle scent alerter — in other words she moved her ears not a lot. At first I had trouble recognizing when she was alerting on something, until one of the instructors pointed it out to me. I saw she was doing so, but if you blinked you would miss it. But I did get the hang of it eventually, although I later wondered what it would be like to be on daily post with so subtle an alerter in the middle of a dark night in Vietnam. She was also very quiet compared to the always ready to roll Duke, and that was all to the good for a successful sentry dog.
Another problem with Babe was that she eventually came to dislike the kibble the dogs were given at the end of each day of training — each piece the size of a rather large pretzel nugget and the ocher color of a pale tobacco leaf. We were told to stay with our dogs until they finished eating, and not to go to the truck transporting us back to the dorm until every dog had finished. It
got to the point where she was the only dog not eating. I was blamed for this by the instructors, and by my fellow handlers who were understandably impatient to get back to our dorm rooms. I tried everything, including hand feeding her (she sniffed the kibble, licked my hand, but would not eat) but nothing worked until each day she was given a small can of horsemeat mixed in with the kibble — this met with her approval and she then ate everything, including the kibble.
Despite these peculiarities Babe was a joy to work with. Since she was not large, she enjoyed the obstacle course at Lackland, even including the narrow pipe tunnel — a feature the heftier dogs hated, growling and moaning all along the way. Babe meanwhile flew through it and out the other end where I would be to greet and praise her. And at Cam Ranh Bay before she was reassigned to another handler, I would frequently meet her at the kennels, take her through the obstacle course there, and into the densely wooded training area, both of which she loved.
She took direction well and always responded well to verbal praise. In fact at Lackland she and I were asked to “perform” for audiences, usually made up of youngish women and their ‘tween daughters. An instructor would take on the role of announcer, describing what the handler and his dog were doing — usually alert, command, retrieve, and praise. There were usually around three handler/dog teams at these events, and Babe was always the star. I would always praise her lavishly thus: “GOOOOD GIRRRRL, THAT’S MY LITTLE PUPPY!!” And the audiences ate it up, with much oooh-ing and aaah-ing and “isn’t she cute”-ing.
Babe always enjoyed being “on” and when she was relegated to the sidelines she was not happy. One morning at Lackland we were told to tie up our dogs to the nearest tree and gather together for some sort of lesson without our dogs. I did so and took off my field jacket and left it with Babe by the tree. When I came back she had shredded part of the lining of my jacket (which my mother successfully reconstructed when I got home from Vietnam). We were also happy to learn that being “on” for Babe did not mean being a dog fighter. One of our instructors would periodically illustrate this by forming us in a single line with our dogs next to us and then he and a canine suspected dog fighter would weave in and out of the line. Well-behaved dogs would ignore this while other potential fighters would engage with the suspected fighter and pandemonium would ensue. Babe, well-trained as she was, of course did not take the bait.
Babe was also part of an increasingly large group of dogs that came down with a “mysterious illness” as it was described in the military. They could perform their military duties but would never return to the US due to the largely unknown details about the blood-related illness. It was at first thought to be histoplasmosis but eventually turned out to be Tropical Canine Pancytopenia (TCP), another blood-related disorder. The dogs would presumably either be euthanized when the US left Vietnam or else offered to the ARVN command. This bothered us all, especially those who wanted to bring home their military working dogs. At that time in Vietnam this type of dog adoption was not possible for military working dogs although it was for local Vietnamese dogs who were military pets or mascots — possible albeit with long periods of quarantine on military bases.
Lackland had very good food, including if you can possibly believe this a separate dinner cheese course between the main course and dessert. It comprised large chunks of three or four cheeses, with bread pieces and crackers — the kind of thing that would be common in British schools and other institutions in Europe. I would take a small chunk of one of the cheeses, wrap it in a napkin, and take it to Babe’s kennel after dinner (this was later in the training cycle some time after her kibble problem was solved). She thoroughly enjoyed this treat, and I got several hand licks for my efforts. Babe by the way was always a licker, and I remember that on the transport plane to Vietnam I would stick my fingers through the holes in her metal kennel and she would lick them as a sort of comfort-taking gesture.
Whenever I think of my military training I will always think of Babe. That goes for my friend Mark Arnold as well. We can today joke about our awful experiences with Duke (sorry Mark, I didn’t mean for you to be saddled with that monster), but we both remember the one-of-a-kind Babe with love and affection.
- Submitted by Steve Dragovich, Company Clerk, 981st, 70/71.