LYON TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — In any veterans cemetery, the headstones tell stories of heroics, honor and sacrifice for our country.
At a cemetery on the east side of the state, the headstones belong to some of the hero dogs that have served alongside their human handlers.
One of them is Shaman, the military working dog assigned to guard Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein after he was captured during 2003’s Operation Red Dawn.
Another is Emperor. Assigned to a SEAL team, his original handler was killed during a raid in which Emperor was stabbed but survived. He later was retrained for a new mission as a service dog for a veteran dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Now here’s a dog that will take you down and kill you. He’s trained. But then you just flip the switch and he becomes a service dog,” U.S. Army veteran Phil Weitlauf said.
Weitlauf founded what has become the final resting place for four-legged heroes: the Michigan War Dogs Memorial.
Weitlauf got the idea for the memorial after hearing stories at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall about the heroics and companionship the dogs provided their handlers and other soldiers stationed far from home in often hostile settings.
“These dogs are so well trained to do their job, and their main function is to save lives and they’d do that,” Weitlauf said. “When (soldiers) come back into their hutch, they can hang on to their dog. They can talk to their dog. It gives them a sense of being home with their pet.”
He wandered onto the once-abandoned pet cemetery, located near South Lyon about 30 minutes west of Detroit, in 2010. It looked much different at the time than it does now. Neglected for decades, the grave markers were buried under brush and weeds. Hidden in the overgrowth was a monument to war dogs erected after World War II.
Weitlauf had a vision of turning the forgotten pet cemetery into a lasting monument. He put out a call to fellow veterans for some help.
“I was hoping maybe 10 or 12 guys would get out here and help me out. Over 55 people showed up. And I said, ‘We got something,'” Weitlauf recalled.
In 2013, Buddy became the first War Dog buried at the memorial.
“As of today, we have interred over 55 K-9 heroes,” Weitlauf said.
Upkeep of the memorial and the cost of funeral services are all covered by donations.
While it’s also open to police, fire, and other emergency services dogs, the majority of the K-9s buried there served with the military.
“It’s our way of showing respect to these military dogs and police dogs that protect us each and every day,” Weitlauf said.
The memorial also provides a lesson you won’t find in the history books about the contributions military K-9s have made dating back to World War I. Back then, their duties included charging into the no man’s land after a battle to save wounded soldiers.
“Bring back an article of his clothing back to the stretcher bearers and then lead the stretcher bearers back to that wounded soldier. And they did that over and over and they just saved thousands of lives,” Weitlauf explained.
As time passed, war dogs’ missions changed. In World War II, K-9s were trained as scouts, trackers, sentries and messengers. During the Korean conflict, dogs were credited with saving soldiers by warning them of ambushes. During Vietnam, they were trained in explosive detection.
Weitlauf says the dogs saved countless lives.
According to the War Dog Memorial, 2,800 military working dogs are currently deployed. Honoring them has become a passion for Weitlauf.
“Those dogs need to be recognized,” he said. “This keeps me so busy and so active and I think it’s going to create a little longevity for me because I’m constantly working on this all the time. I love it.”