National monument for Military Working Dogs dedicated

After long years of hard work, preparation, and fundraising, the Military Working Dog Teams National Monument was officially dedicated in a ceremony Monday, October 28, 2013.

The structure features a nine-foot-tall bronze soldier representing a dog handler, and he’s flanked by four dog breeds.

The stunning monument, paid for by sponsors and donations and created by renowned bronze sculptor Paula B. Slater, consists of four bronze replicas of the most prominent working dog breeds serving in the United States military since World War II — a Doberman Pinscher, a German Shepherd, a Labrador Retriever, and a Belgian Malinois. The canine statues are arranged on a large granite platform alongside a nine-foot tall bronze dog handler representing all the valiant handlers that served in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Military Working Dog (MWD) handlers past and present, animal advocates, and plenty of friends and family gathered Monday at Lackland Airforce Base in San Antonio, Texas, for the touching tribute to the brave dogs of war who risk their lives to protect soldiers on the battlefield and preserve the freedoms we enjoy back here at home.

“This is a great day for Joint Base San Antonio and the Department of Defense,” Brigadier General Bob LaBrutta, 502nd Air Base Wing and JBSA commander said during the dedication of the impressive statue. “To the working dog members and the dogs in the audience, this is your day. I’m so glad Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland could be the home of this monument.”

And what a fitting home it is — the Department of Defense Military Working Dog program, which is the world’s largest training center for military dogs and their handlers, has been based at the JBSA-Lackland facility since 1958.

The monument is inscribed with the words “Guardians of America’s Freedom,” words those in attendance at Monday’s emotional dedication, like Military Dog handler and Fallon, Nevada resident John Baker, feel are more than fitting. Baker’s unit, the 212th Military Police Company Detachment A, was known as “Hell on Paws.”

“These dogs were patriots just as much as anybody else who served,” Baker tells NBC News.

Vietnam veteran Military Working Dog handler John Burnham began working to establish the country’s first national monument honoring these hero dogs in 2001. Inspired by his experiences with MWDs Timber, Clipper, and Hans, Burnham began researching the history of dogs in the military for his two books, Dog Tags of Courage and A Soldier’s Best Friend: Scout Dogs and Their Handlers in the Vietnam War. Armed with his own memories and the amazing stories of other handlers, Burnham says he knew he had to find a way to get these courageous canines the recognition they so deserved.

“As a Scout Dog handler in Vietnam I experienced firsthand how valuable these dogs are at saving soldiers’ lives,” Burnham tells Military.com. “Yet, despite their value, when we pulled out of Vietnam the dogs were left behind. They were fellow soldiers and they were our best friends. They were heroes and they were left to die. So I was determined to get the dogs, of all wars, recognized at the highest level of our nation’s government and then build them a magnificent national monument to ensure they would never be forgotten again.”

Burnham is thrilled to see his idea come to fruition, and even happier to have played a part in honoring our nation’s combat canines.

“Dog units are worth a million dollars for everything they do,” Burnham says. “You can’t say enough, you can’t give enough accolades to them.”

Sources: NBC News, Military.com, ABC News, U.S Military Working Dog Teams National Monument