published Thursday, July 10th, 2014

Kennedy: America unleashes canine heroes

Editor's note: Mark Kennedy's Life Stories column will appear Thursdays in the City section. He welcomes readers' ideas for human-interest stories. Kennedy's column in the Sunday Life section — renamed Family Life and focused on parenting — will continue.

One day in May, Lynne Humphries, a retired schoolteacher, visited Books-A-Million on Highway 153 to gather reading material for her Memorial Day weekend.

She bought three books. One of them was "Soldier Dogs" by journalist Maria Goodavage, an homage to the bomb-sniffing canines who "walk the point" in today's wars. (A dog outfitted in night-vision goggles was reportedly with SEAL Team Six on the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.)

Humphries, a cancer patient, has a lot on her mind these days, and she often escapes mentally into her reading. Her only daughter, Ashley, is a trauma surgeon serving on a large military base in Afghanistan where she is elbow deep in the carnage of America's longest war.

Ironically, her daughter's military service helps Humphries forget about her own battle against lymphoma.

"People say, 'You're so cheerful.' Well, my only child is in a war zone," she explains. "I think the best gift you can give someone [over there] is the belief that you can be strong and do well until they come back. My daughter thinks I have a steel rod up my back."

More like titanium. Cancer, it turns out, is a mere nuisance -- a gnat -- if your child is in harm's way.

Like many courageous people, Humphries has discovered that fear is not conquered in quiet moments of introspection but through bold bursts of activity.

As she read "Soldier Dogs," she began to see these animals as symbolic of her daughter's military service. In a way, she thought, her physician daughter is "walking point" for her country, saving soldiers who have had arms and legs blown off by improvised explosive devices, IEDs.

Goodavage's book reports that U.S. dog teams in Afghanistan were responsible for finding "12,500 pounds of explosives" in 2010 alone. She writes: "... Seventeen handlers have been killed in action since 2001, and 44 military working dogs have died in war zones since 2005."

Using their almost supernatural powers of smell, the soldier dogs -- often German shepherd mixes -- are able to find roadside bombs and landmines that are subsequently disarmed and removed by military specialists. Besides protecting American lives, the dogs have helped liberate entire Afghan villages where people are paralyzed with fear that their children will be blown apart by explosives hidden in the countryside like evil Easter eggs.

With her little mixed-breed dog Lucy at her side, Humphries read chapter after chapter of "Warrior Dogs" and got an idea. While hundreds of thousands of care packages are sent to American troops, she thought, what if no one had ever considered the needs of these soldier dogs? What if she could gather supplies and treats with these valiant dog teams in mind?

She sought advice at an Army recruiting station, a pet supply store and even a U.S. Postal Service branch here. A kind lady at a local sign shop designed a logo for Humphries' Soldier Dog Project. Everywhere she went, people empathized immediately with her effort. There's something about helping dogs that triggers primal emotions in people. Or as author Goodavage writes: "The irony is that soldier dogs make war a little more human."

Humphries didn't want to simply package up crates of dog biscuits. She wanted to send packages of items to fill specific needs. Her packing list includes, among other things: Kongs -- rubber chew toys often smeared with peanut butter and used to reward the soldier dogs in the field; baby wipes and veterinary eye rinse used to clean away the dust of combat; misting fans and ice packs to battle intense heat; special creams and salves to treat paws cracked by dry weather and rocky terrain.

In her mind's eye, Humphries imagines an American soldier opening one of her Soldier Dog Project boxes and sharing it with his four-legged partner in a "Christmas-morning" moment for both of them.

Interestingly, Humphries' story doesn't end with a plea for funding or help. She sees her project as a solitary act, an example to others who might similarly use their imaginations to look for creative ways to help others.

"I would love to see somebody read this story and say: 'This is a great project. I could do something like this myself.'"

All it takes is a bit of reason and a lot of resolution.

To suggest a human interest story, contact Mark Kennedy at or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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