Four veterans were honored with Medal of Courage awards on Capitol Hill on May 22.
They didn’t give any speeches, but not just because they were humble — the four vets are retired military working dogs.
The American Humane Lois Pope K-9 Medal of Courage is the highest honor for military dogs that displayed extraordinary valor and service to their country.
“These remarkable dogs have given us their best,” veterans advocate Lois Pope said at the ceremony. “They have put their own lives on the line to protect us, to defend us, and to save us.”
The four recipients were:
- Jag, a 12-year-old Labrador retriever who served with the Army for seven years.
- Taba, a 9-year-old Dutch shepherd who served as an Army Special Forces multipurpose canine.
- Summer, a 7-year-old Labrador retriever who served in Afghanistan and is now a member of a TSA K-9 team for the Amtrak Police Department in Washington, D.C.
- Taker, a 12-year-old Labrador retriever who served with the Marine Corps in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Marine veteran Kevin Zuniga deployed with Taker to Afghanistan with 1st Tank Battalion out of Twentynine Palms, California.
“We met a few months before we deployed because they were asking for volunteers to be dog handlers,” Zuniga told Military Times.
The dogs were awarded medals for serving with distinction in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Unfortunately, the Marine wasn’t selected at first, but when someone had to drop out, Zuniga took the spot.
“It was meant to be, I guess,” he said.
Zuniga and Taker conducted route clearing in Afghanistan for seven months.
The dogs and their handlers remained in the trucks until the dogs were needed to clear a checkpoint.
“If someone happens to walk by, it’s an easy target for the enemy,” he said. “But dogs are lower to the ground, faster to run around and a lot lighter so they wouldn’t trigger any explosives.”
Taker was also a morale booster for the deployed troops.
“They could pet him and play with him and kind of forget about what we’re doing over there a little bit,” he said.
Once the pair returned from deployment, Zuniga had to give Taker back to the government.
“I still had two years left with the Marines, so I didn’t see him for two years,” Zuniga said. “In 2012, I was discharged, and it just so happened that he was getting discharged as well.”
After doing some research and connecting with someone who knew where Taker was, Zuniga was able to adopt the dog he served with.
“He’s been with us since the end of 2012,” Zuniga said. “We picked him up at the airport, and he still recognized me.”
Zuniga said he was surprised and happy when he found out his four-legged companion was picked for the Medal of Courage award.
“I’ve seen the competition from previous years,” he said. “I’m happy because he’s been through a lot. He deployed with a different handler to Iraq.”
The Marine said military dogs aren’t always recognized as much as their human counterparts.
“They’re just seen as tools sometimes,” he said. “It shines some light toward the topic of military dogs and makes people think about the dogs that didn’t make it or back, or the people that didn’t make it back.”
Air Force veteran Micah Jones echoed Zuniga’s sentiment.
“In the military, a lot of the handlers are the ones getting the ribbons and the medals,” he said. “Dogs don’t really get that much.”
Although Jones and Summer both served, they didn’t find each other until their civilian jobs brought them together working with Amtrak police.
The former security forces airman met Summer in 2014 after Jones’ previous canine partner retired.
“She’s a burst of energy,” he said. “I checked her vet records, and that’s when I learned she was over in Kandahar, [Afghanistan].”
Jones made contact with Summer’s previous handler and found out she served with Marines conducting routine patrols, clearing routes, finding weapon caches and even coming under fire.
“Me being a veteran, and learning about her being a war dog and military veteran as well, it was an honor,” he said of being paired with Summer.
She wears her Afghanistan campaign ribbon and Global War on Terrorism service medal on her work harness every day.
“I want the public to know she’s a war dog,” Jones said. “She served her time.”