By Kelly Alexander
Some of the most effective weapons the United States had for saving American lives during war time were none other than “man’s best friend.” Military dogs, throughout history, have been credited with saving thousands of American lives.
With the keenest senses dogs can, see, smell and hear danger and alert servicemen of booby traps and hidden enemies. In Vietnam, government statistics estimate the use of dogs reduced casualties by 65 percent.
Sentry dogs worked defending perimeters of military bases, while scout dogs “walked point” or in front of human patrols and could sense enemy traps and ambushes.
Tracker dogs pursued fleeing ambushers and found lost soldiers and downed pilots and water dogs could even sense divers beneath the water.
German Shepherds were ideal for handling such a job due to their abilities to acclimate rather quickly. They were in so much demand that American families were asked to send their dogs off to war, just as they did their sons.
The teams of handlers and their dogs were so effective in Vietnam that the VC put a price on their heads. A patch from a handler or the ear of a dog was worth money.
Approximately 10,000 handlers worked with some 4,000 dogs during the conflict and about 263 handlers and 500 dogs died in combat.
The fate of the dogs was grim though, as they were the heroes that were guaranteed not to return home. To the government, the dogs were merely equipment. The joy of returning home for the handler was paired with the pain of leaving their best friends behind. After the conflict, the government refused to bring the dogs home stating the dogs carried diseases or would be likely to attack. Only 204 of the animals came home. The remainder were euthanized or turned over to the South Vietnamese Army.
Handlers and their dogs often formed special bonds. Each protected each other and the dogs became like brothers.
Pat O’Fallon can tell such a story with deep heartfelt appreciation for the dogs he worked with.
He grew up in St. Louis County and enlisted with the Air Force in September of 1968. His basic training began at Lackland AFB, which was followed by security police training which these days is called security forces. He was one of three volunteers to go into the K-9 unit. He was instructed that after training with the dogs, they would get a 30-day leave and after that, be deployed to Vietnam where they would then be paired with their dogs. O’Fallon admits he volunteered because he was determined to go to Vietnam and volunteering for the K-9 unit was the fastest way to get there. “There was a war going on and I wanted to get in it. It was my war,” he said. “It was meant to be, I knew it.”
The dogs he worked with were specifically trained for attack. Each night, the teams of handlers and dogs were stationed at the base perimeter or beyond to be used as the first line of detection for “zappers” or enemy infiltration. “They were very capable of detecting people,” he said.
The first dog O’Fallon was paired with was a dog named Rebel with whom he served a year in Cam Rahn Bay.
After that year, he was stationed stateside in California for 18 months where guarded a nuclear bomb dump at a B-52 aircraft training base, still working with dogs in the K-9 unit but he was so bored there that he went back to Vietnam for another year.
There, he was stationed not just at Cam Rahn Bay, but also at Tan Son Nhut and Da Nang with a dog named “Pooh-Bear.” O’Fallon says sometimes it took a few days for a handler and dog to adjust to each other. The dogs could be so mean that a handler would just have to sit with the animal and speak to it until they were comfortable with each other. “Pooh-Bear was such a great dog. He was on the borderline of being a patrol command dog and being cool to a very vicious attack machine. He was a great dog to have. I was very happy with him.”
After four years in the military, O’Fallon got out in 1972 and went to college. He was hired as a Corporate Investigator right out of school by Ozark Airlines. After ten years at Ozark, he was back in the government’s hands when he was recruited by the FAA for Aviation Security after the TWA 847 Hijacking in 1985. From 1992-1996, he took his wife and two kids with him to live at the America Embassy in Brussels, Belgium. He was among only five out of 23 that made it through the air marshal class because of the extreme shooting skills needed. As a Federal Air Marshal, he retired in 2012.
His last job was working as a Program Manager for the Explosive Detection Canine Program and was in charge of 17 dog and handler teams out of Lambert Airport. Thus, he made full circle by beginning his career with the awesome dogs and ending it the same way, working with the dogs.
He has traveled all over the world many times, as part of his career but says the one place that stands out to him as most impressive is in Lourdes, France. It is the area where the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernadette. O’Fallon says you can feel the spirituality. “It will make your skin crawl,” he said.
O’Fallon’s great-grandparents came from Ireland and homesteaded property in Leasburg. He can remember coming to the old farmhouse as a child in the 50’s. There was no running water or electricity and the mattress were made from corn shucks. “And the house was insulated with newspaper,” he said.