‘The Dogs of War’: Veteran remembers ‘the best friend I ever had’
Over 50 years later, Terry Kehoe still says Prince was “the best friend I ever had.” In 1971, Kehoe was a “buck sergeant,” an E-5 non-commissioned officer in the U.S. Army, walking through the jungles and central highlands of Vietnam. Prince, a German shepherd scout dog, was his constant companion.
The two “walked point,” out ahead of the rest of the platoon as they patrolled, the first to encounter booby traps, ambushes or tripwires. Scout dogs and their handlers were so crucial to the success – to the survival – of the soldiers on patrol that their North Vietnamese and Viet Cong adversaries put a bounty on their heads.
“There were three targets in the infantry – the CO” or commanding officer, “the radio man, and the scout dog and their handler,” said Kehoe.
Rather than stay with one unit, Kehoe and Prince would chopper into a fire base to lead patrols as requested and developed an extraordinary bond. “My camaraderie was with Prince – it wasn’t with the rest of the guys. I had that bond for the rest of my life,” he said. It is estimated that Army scout dogs, along with sentry dogs and tracker dogs, saved the lives of 10,000 servicemen during the duration of the Vietnam conflict.
Kehoe didn’t learn until decades later how the dogs’ loyalty and service were repaid. In one of the senseless cruelties of war, Prince, who “survived out there twice as long as I did,” working with another handler after Kehoe rotated back to the States, and all the other dogs were “euthanized,” classified as excess equipment and put to death before U.S. forces departed from Vietnam.
Terry Kehoe has never forgotten the intensity of the partnership, friendship and love he shared with a German shepherd surrounded by war. After his military service, he went into a helping profession as a first responder, fulfilling a lifelong dream by becoming a firefighter and paramedic, and rising to be assistant chief of the Edina, Minnesota fire department. His wife Lois, with him at the Veterans’ Day ceremony, said she understands the special place in Terry’s heart for Prince.
Kehoe said that, like so many veterans, he struggled with the psychological aftermath of his time in war, even before they came up with the term PTSD, both early on and particularly after learning in 1999 of the fate of the Army dogs.
“In the first few years, if I saw someone who looked Vietnamese, Lois had to hold me back,” he said. “Now, I’ve talked with many Vietnamese people, and I have no animosity toward them.” He credits the Veterans Center in Naples with helping him process his emotions.
“I’m a very strong proponent of counseling and the Veterans Center,” he said. “Unless you were there (in war) you can’t understand it.”
Kehoe was gratified to point out that after former dog handlers got together and advocated, legislation known as “Robby’s Law” was passed to allow retired service dogs to be returned to the U.S. and adopted by their handlers.