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Photo: Active duty and Vietnam veteran dog handlers stand before the Georgia State Capital in 2007, a few weeks after Dixie Whitman and Ken Besecker founded MWDTSA. That day, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue signed MWDTSA’s request proclaiming March 22, 2007 as Military Dog Handler Day in Georgia.

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Military Working Dog Team Support Association, Inc. (MWDTSA) began as a labor of love, co-founded by German Shepherd Dog enthusiast Dixie Whitman and Vietnam veteran dog handler Ken Besecker. Here’s a glimpse of how it all started.

Meet Ken Besecker…

“The relationship between dog and man is an unbreakable bond,” says Ken Besecker, who experienced this truism firsthand in Vietnam.

During the Vietnam War, the military classified K9s as equipment, not soldiers. But as Besecker and other veterans can attest, the estimated 4,200 military working dogs in Vietnam provided a variety of military skills. They tracked, scouted, and protected. They offered companionship, and occasionally, much-needed comic relief during this dark period of history.

Ken Besecker fell into the MWD world by happenstance. While attending the Infantry Officer Basic Course at Fort Benning, Georgia, a Captain from the U.S. Army Scout Dog Training Detachment asked if Ken would be interested in working with dogs. Ken’s affirmative response led to an assignment with the Scout Dog Detachment. Ultimately, he served in Vietnam as Commander of the 62nd Infantry Platoon (Combat Tracker) and Training Officer at the United States Army Republic of Vietnam (USARV) Dog Training Detachment.

MWD handlers and their comrades entrusted their lives to K9s in Vietnam. “The dogs endured heat, rain, leeches, jungle vines, elephant grass, and many other discomforts,” reports Besecker, “just to hear ‘good dog’ and receive a pat on the side or a scratch on the head.”

They acted heroically, like the humans they protected.

“Vietnam veterans tell of dogs lying beside their wounded buddies or continuing to track or scout or guard in the face of any danger,” adds Besecker.

In response to one particular mission, the military awarded an entire 62nd Tracker team a Bronze Star with a “V” for valor, citing heroism in combat. Since Otis, Tracker Dog number T019, did not have a uniform, the Division Assistant Commander pinned the Bronze Star on a yellow towel. This way, Otis could wear his award, too. Otis, by the way, was one of the few dogs to come home after the war.

Toward the end of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Ken Besecker traveled all over the country to pick dogs to return to the U.S. for reassignment. “It felt great to watch those first 50 dogs leave on planes for the U.S.,” he recalls. “It wasn’t until after the war that I learned most MWDs in Vietnam were declared ‘surplus,’ as if they were unneeded equipment, and left behind to face euthanasia or worse.” Only 204 returned to the U.S.

Besecker wants to ensure the memory of these MWDs stays alive and that people know the important roles these K9 heroes served in Vietnam and continue to serve in conflicts today, protecting countless lives.

Enter Dixie Whitman…

Dixie has studied German Shepherd Dogs for 46 years, fascinated in particular by their tracking skills—the ability to follow an invisible trail and pick up scents left hours or days ago. The first web site she ever visited? The Vietnam Dog Handlers Association (VDHA), a group of veterans from the Vietnam War. The site contained a Q&A feature, so Dixie started asking questions.

Ken Besecker was one of several Vietnam veterans who answered those queries. He shared about the Vietnam dogs and their handlers. He described the tragic end many of these MWDs faced and the shameful welcome Vietnam veterans received upon their return home.

Dixie recalls, “It became clear to me that many of these veterans had never heard a simple thank you for their service.” She set out to rectify this.

Through the VDHA dialogue, Dixie discovered that Ken lived less than 200 miles away. In 2002, she invited several Georgia-based Vietnam handlers to the Georgia Governor’s office. That’s where she met Ken and his wife Liz, face-to-face, for the first time. Dixie and Ken discovered they knew many people in common, as both were involved in the sport of dogs in Georgia.

Over the next four years, Dixie spent her own time and money sending care packages to deployed handlers and their dogs. Additionally, she helped organize events at Fort Benning. In 2006, Ken suggested establishing a nonprofit organization to facilitate fundraising and reduce Dixie’s out-of-pocket expenditures.

“I wasn’t thrilled with the idea,” Dixie said, “because I had no idea how to run a nonprofit.  But Ken and I met at a reunion of his unit, the 62nd Combat Trackers, and discussed everything from a code of ethics to articles of incorporation. He fronted the money to hire an attorney to review our paperwork. And at last, we got Lois Lerner’s signature on a 501(c)(3) letter.” The Military Working Dog Team Support Association officially launched on November 13, 2006.

Reflecting on the early years

In preparation for its 10th anniversary in 2016, MWDTSA invited co-founders Ken Besecker and Dixie Whitman to reminisce about the organization’s humble beginnings.  The following interview and the historical background above originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Kennel Talk.

MWDTSA: What were some of the challenges in getting MWDTSA off the ground?

KEN BESECKER: We didn’t have any money or previous nonprofit experience. The nonprofit designation was vital for making fundraising easier, but it took some time to get that engine started.

DIXIE WHITMAN:  Because we had no initial funding, we still did much of the MWDTSA work on our own dimes. Also, we were (and are!) a niche group, meaning we must focus on public education since many people don’t know about MWDs.  Folks don’t realize how impactful these dog teams are, and therefore we are not “top-of-mind” when people are making charitable donations or volunteering—until you get to know us.

We started with a tiny volunteer crew—maybe two or three people on a great day.  You know the old adage, “busier than a one-armed wallpaper hanger?”  I gathered experience in everything from writing press releases, to volunteer coordination, to publishing a newsletter, and pretty much every skill in between.

MWDTSA: What was MWDTSA’s first project or event? How did you feel when you were launching that first event?

KEN: Top Dogs Pet Boutique, a pet store in Kennesaw, Georgia, hosted an open house for MWDTSA and donated a percentage of the day’s proceeds to our organization. That gave us a spring board and felt like a stamp of legitimacy.

DIXIE:  We received the final IRS letter confirming our nonprofit status shortly before a 2007 Fort Benning event that I was helping coordinate. Two hundred people attended that program, where we enjoyed a stunning guest speaker from the Pentagon. I was thrilled that we had enough money to buy a gorgeous standing floral tribute for the event.

MWDTSA: Think back over the entire history of your efforts. What MWDTSA events particularly moved you?

KEN: Dixie had a friend who taught elementary school students. Her class colored pictures and gave those out at a reunion of the 62nd Combat Tracker platoon. It really inspired me to see people caring about what had happened in the past.

MWDTSA was also able to raise money for new pedestals at the War Dog Memorial in Fort Benning. A number of veterans and volunteers attended the dedication of these pedestals, and this sticks with me as a highlight.

Additionally, for several years, there was an annual event where selected dog teams from Georgia installations visited the state capitol. The governor signed a proclamation for Military Working Dog Appreciation Day. We had the proclamation framed, presented it to the various installations, and had a cookout and dog demonstration.

“It’s been great to see the enthusiasm and bearing of today’s soldiers, Navy folks, airmen, and Marines.” —Ken Besecker

DIXIE: For me, there are a multitude of moments that stand out. I’ve been overcome by emotion on many occasions as I think about where I’ve come from and what this organization has gifted me.

One day, very early on, I was trying to send out a press release. It was my very first news release, and I had little idea of what I was doing. I wanted to get it to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and wasn’t quite sure how to go about contacting them.

The same day I wrote this press release, our Vice President, Ann Wilkerson, called to say she had just run into the wife of the military affairs writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution while visiting a new hair dresser. The chances of her running into the exact connection that I needed out of 4.67 million folks in Greater Atlanta were pretty slim. The press release and that connection were a real success for the MWD program at Fort Benning.

“Even today, when I think back on it, I sometimes have to pull my car over, as it is still very emotional to me.” —Dixie Whitman

Last year, I attended a memorial for a Marine dog we had supported on his deployment in Afghanistan. At that event, all three of this dog’s handlers were in attendance and shared personal stories with me of their time working with him. I felt beyond honored to have been included in the sharing of such precious and personal memories. This experience culminated in one of my favorite Kennel Talk articles ever.  If you haven’t read it, check out the cover of the August 2015 issue.

All of the handlers mean a lot to me. Some of them become really close friends, and I love that they ask me to support their friends as well. I am humbled at the quality and caliber of men and women who work with these dogs, day in and day out, to keep us all safe. Knowing that I’ve made a difference in the lives of these extraordinary heroes who have been in harm’s way is beyond special. I am honored to call so many of them friends.

This image shows a soldier with a stack of envelopes, calling out recipients' names.

Dick Durrance served as an Army photographer during the Vietnam era. Today, at age 75, Durrance is on a mission—to raise public awareness about the challenges of serving in a combat environment. Through photos and speaking engagements, he shares words of wisdom on how people can support today’s military. His recent TEDxTalk brought 5,000 people to their feet.

This black and white image shows Durrance sitting in a bunker with a camera in his lap.

Dick Durrance II, Army Specialist 4th class, sits in a Camp Evans bunker, March 1968. The Army issued him a Rolleiflex Twin Lens Reflex which shot medium format 120 mm film. He also carried a 35mm Nikon F camera. (Photo courtesy of Dick Durrance)

As you’ll see in the interview below, his family has a tie to the 10th Mountain Division, Camp Hale, Colorado. MWDTSA’s Q1-2018 care packages are commemorating the 75th anniversary of Camp Hale, and we were excited to learn about the Durrance connection.

Kennel Talk (KT): Tell us about your role in the Army.

Dick Durrance: I served in the Department of Army Special Photographic Office. Based at Fort Shafter, Hawaii, I shipped out for three months at a time to take pictures for the Pentagon in Thailand, Vietnam (twice), and Korea. My assignments ranged from photographing equipment, facilities, and terrain to documenting combat missions. The Pentagon used these pictures to brief the President on military activities in Southeast Asia in 1967 and 1968.

KT: Did you ever have a chance to photograph military working dogs?

Durrance shot this photo of the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea. The image shows a harsh, uninviting landscape.

Many of Durrance’s assignments involved photographing terrain and military assets for the Pentagon. Pictured here: Command Post 250 on the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a heavily patrolled border separating North and South Korea. (Photo by Dick Durrance)

Durrance: Just once, and the experience left me with a lifelong fear of German Shepherds. While in the Korea DMZ, I received an assignment to photograph the canines. I was young and dumb at the time. One of the dogs was on a 30-foot chain attached to a stake. I had the idea of kneeling 33 feet from the dog and setting the camera focus at three feet. I signaled the handler to release the dog to ‘attack’ me. The canine bounded toward me with alarming speed, barking ferociously and baring its fangs. Through my lens, all I could see was mouth. He hit the end of the chain, way too close for comfort.

KT: Your dad, also named Dick Durrance, was a famous ski racer. What was his relation to the 10th Mountain Division?

Durrance: When Minnie Dole was selling the idea of creating the 10th Mountain Division, the military had one question. Would it be better to train marksmen how to ski, or teach skiers how to shoot? The military said to my dad, “We want to send you a company of soldiers who don’t ski and see if you can train them to ski.” They were a test case. Could top skiers in Alta, Utah train neophytes to ski in a reasonable amount of time?

The answer was a resounding NO. After about three months, roughly a third of the skiers had broken their legs. At the time, there were no quick-release bindings. Those had not been invented yet. This failed experiment led the military to conclude they needed to recruit seasoned skiers and teach them how to shoot.

For anyone who’s interested, there’s a chapter about my dad’s Alta experience in his memoir, The Man on the Medal.

KT: On Veterans Day 2017, you gave a TedXMileHigh Talk, and then subsequently took part in an interview with Colorado Public Radio about your time in Vietnam. Here are some of the pearls you shared…

  • Going through basic training, you asked yourself, “Am I ready for this? I’m about to be melted down and recast as a warrior and handed to the President to do with as he wishes.”
  • “If you saw someone as a mother’s son or a little boy’s father, could you pull the trigger?”
  • As you photographed your first firefight, you felt “startled by how loud it was. The roar of the tanks. The boom of the big guns. The rat-tat-tat of machine guns. Deafening and disorienting.”
  • Grappling with what you had just witnessed, you realized you were “going to have to suck it up and somehow come to terms with the fear that comes from fighting.”
  • You noted, “I did it for a day and I was rattled. Those guys did it for a year. What did that do to their minds?”
  • “One of the riflemen in the unit said to me, ‘Dick, there is no more hellish dilemma that we face than taking aim at somebody and not knowing whether they are a friend or a foe. Do you pull the trigger or not? And if you are wrong, how do you deal with that?’”

Timeless advice

Durrance: It’s hard to convey what combat is like. Through sharing my photos, I hope to give people a fuller sense of what soldiers go through and how it affects them.

If we are to appreciate what the men and women who are out there fighting right now are doing for us, we have to understand how profound their combat experience is. They risk their lives, face terror, and lose buddies. And when they come home, they somehow have to square what they had to do as warriors to survive with what they are expected to do now. It is not easy.

Durrance photographed the aging handle of a street sewer access lid. The image looks like a pair of square eyes, haunted with pain.

“I was walking in Carbondale, Colorado, when suddenly, I noticed square eyes peering at me from the pavement. It was only an access lid to a street sewer, but I felt I was staring into my psyche,” recalls Durrance. (Photo by Dick Durrance)

Even 49 years after returning from Southeast Asia, I will see something random, such as the handle of a manhole cover, which jogs a memory from Vietnam. It will remind me of the guilt I felt when I pushed civilian values aside.

I encourage people to think of every day as Veteran’s Day. Put a couple minutes aside to appreciate what our service members are doing for us every day. Try to understand what they are going through and how it’s affecting them. And what I hope you never forget is that when war goes into a service member’s mind and heart, it never leaves.

KT: As we aim to support today’s service members, what are your thoughts about letters and care packages?

Durrance: At basic training, I remember how lonely I felt being unplugged from family and friends. Mail call was a chance to touch base with loved ones. It was a connection to an outside world that was seeming further and further away. At the same time, we knew our family and friends had no idea of the military world. They were remembering us as we were, having no idea of what we were becoming.

This photo, taken by Dick Durrance during basic training, shows a soldier with a stack of envelopes, calling out recipients' names.

“Mail call in basic training and throughout our tours of duty was a vital link to our lives back home,” says Durrance. (Photo by Dick Durrance)

It’s important to take the time to reach out. It’s also important to try to step into the shoes of these servicemen and women in an effort to understand their world.

Many thanks to Dick Durrance for sharing his experiences and insights with Kennel Talk.

Join the conversation by adding a comment below. If you’ve been deployed, what do you want civilians to know about your experience? How can family and friends best support active duty personnel, as well as combat veterans who are now back home?

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MWDTSA supports military working dog teams (dog plus handler) deployed in conflict zones overseas. To donate toward a care package for these intrepid teams, visit https://www.mwdtsa.org/donate/.

To order a copy of Dick Durrance’s 1988 book, Where War Lives: A Photographic Journal of Vietnam, send a check for $20 to Dick Durrance, Post Office Box 1268, Carbondale, CO 81623. Make sure to include your mailing address, email address, and phone number when placing your order. Also, he has copies of his father’s memoir, The Man on the Medal, available for $45 each (the price includes postage).

Jonathan Wahl on long hike in the mountains
Jonathan Wahl on long hike in the mountains

Jonathan Wahl on long hike in the mountains

What a real treat. Our website guru, Jonathan, was a member of the 47th IPSD and he manages his unit’s website as well. We were talking today about doing some video and how to best get it online when he referred me to this treasure of video only as an example of how we could put something online. When I saw it, I absolutely had to share with everyone.

As you will see, this was taken by one of the Platoon Commanders, James Bradshaw. It will be a real eye-opener for all of the young folks who never knew life before the digital age, but it is a great opportunity to share some video of the dogs and handlers with the 47th who were in support of the 101st. Much of the time, they were based in Hue, South Vietnam which was up in I Corps. Keep in mind, these handlers were trained at Fort Benning as Infantry, not MPs. After viewing the video go into the website proper and get a real sense of the way handlers in Vietnam worked. Lots of stories, photos and history are stored here. Great job, Jonathan. Enjoy the video everyone.
(Photo of Jonathan on long hike in the mountains.)

Click on the link below to see the Vietnam era video. By the way, the dog footage is around minute mark 13. The entire footage is about 37 minutes long.
http://47ipsd.us/47vidjmb.htm