Steve Frack volunteered to go to Vietnam, but the young veterinarian found himself in Southern California treating dogs guarding missile sites instead.
A few years later, Mel Cheney became a military policeman who worked with dogs to secure the perimeter of an Army base in Vietnam.
Frack recalled traveling in civilian clothes and cars because people would spit on soldiers and throw things at their cars. Cheney recalled being treated that way when he returned home from the war.
On Saturday, they’ll both be greeted as heroes as they travel at the front of the Veterans Day Parade, because they’re this year’s grand marshals.
The parade begins at 11 a.m. Saturday in downtown Roseburg. Organizer Carol Hunt said she’s hoping for about 125 entrants in this year’s parade. The theme this year is military animal handlers, and many participating veterans will bring their dogs. Lola, a comfort dog for the Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center’s dementia patients, will also be in the parade.
Douglas County is one of three areas in the state to be named a Regional Site for the Observance of Veterans Day 2017, a designation from the Department of Veterans Affairs Veterans Day National Committee. The other two are Albany and Portland.
Cheney is the retired director of the Roseburg Community Cancer Center. He volunteered to join the Army in 1972 and became a military policeman and an animal handler. He had a long tradition of military service in his family, with a member of his family serving in every war since the American Revolution.
He served for eight months, primarily guarding the Long Binh Army base, which was at the time the largest ammunition dump in the world. He worked with German shepherds to patrol the jungle area around the base. The shepherds were trained to sniff out and attack North Vietnamese soldiers attempting to sneak into the base. There were about 70 dogs at the base.
His animal handler training took place in Okinawa, Japan. One of the funniest things, in retrospect anyway, that happened to him during his service happened during his final exam at Okinawa. His dog Storm, a 105-pound German shepherd, got a bit excited.
“It had been raining, and the elephant grass was really slippery and slick. During the course they’ll have what they call agitators hidden out in the grass and you’re supposed to go along, and the dog detected and flushed out the intruder. Well he detected this one all right, and he pulled on me so hard I lost my balance and he was dragging me through the grass, and every time I tried to stand up, he was just full force,” he said.
The officers watching were in hysterics, he said.
“Of course I got teased without mercy about that,” he said.
The real thing was, of course, much harder. While most of the time he was on sentry duty, Cheney also had to act as infantry at times, and sometimes had to escort convoys of lightly armored V-100 vehicles. Cheney said he liked working with the dogs, though.
“They’re wonderful animals, extremely intelligent, remarkable senses. They’re fearless, and of course a dog’s sense of smell and hearing is just literally remarkable,” he said.
One of the toughest things was leaving the dogs behind at the end of the war. The Army was worried that the dogs would bring home exotic diseases if they returned to America. And the Army had gotten a “black eye” after a former Korean War military police dog attacked an American child, Cheney said. So the dogs were left in Vietnam when the human soldiers returned home.
“We were taught to view our dogs as a weapon, the same way we would a rifle or a pistol or something like that. But obviously, it’s very hard not to get an attachment to them,” Cheney said.
Cheney said he tells people his military service was a million-dollar experience.
“I wouldn’t trade it for a million dollars, but I wouldn’t do it again for a million bucks,” he said. “It was beautiful and ugly, and wonderful and awful all at the same time.”
Cheney hasn’t been a grand marshal in the parade before and said he’s tremendously honored. He said the parade is highly significant for veterans, and for Vietnam veterans in particular it “goes a long way toward healing some of those scars the veterans have from the shabby treatment we received when we were returning home.”
Today, Cheney has two American Eskimo dogs, who he said are not very well disciplined or trained.
“People accuse me of being wrapped around their little paws, and they are spoiled,” he said.
Frack, a Roseburg veterinarian at For the Love of Paws, owns two silky terriers.
Frack grew up in Kansas, and when it seemed his brother might get the farm his grandfather homesteaded, he decided to go to college instead. He went to Kansas State University, studied veterinary medicine, and told his mentor he wanted to create a career in which he would fly between cattle lots and take care of their feed, vaccinations and other needs. He was 20 years ahead of his time. His mentor laughed at him.
So he volunteered for the Army. It was 1968, and he wanted to go to Vietnam, but the Army had other ideas. Instead, he was stationed at San Pedro, California, where he managed a veterinary clinic and visited Southern California missile sites to care for the dogs there.
At the time, Army veterinarians were also tasked with food inspections, including those that were shipped to Vietnam. There were two private hotels which took in all the new draftees, and he had to inspect their kitchens, too. He discovered that the food the soldiers ate up front looked very different from what it looked like out back, where workers didn’t always wash their hands and rats were in the stored foodstuffs.
He didn’t wear his Army coat or take an Army vehicle on those visits, he said.
“We couldn’t drive a military car, because if we did, we were going to get spit on and the car was going to have stuff on it when we got back to it,” he said.
He also inspected the food stored underneath the Long Beach airport. There’s a city underneath that airport, he said. If Los Angeles were bombed, the city’s politicians were to go down there, and it was stocked with dry food for them to eat.
As a veterinarian, Frack checked out dogs donated to be sent to Vietnam. These were almost all German shepherds. After one such checkup, one of the dogs was taken out for some training, which Frack watched.
The trainer pulled out his pistol and shot a blank, and the dog took off, yanking the leash out of the trainer’s hands and leaping over a 6-foot fence.
“We never saw that dog again,” Frack said.
There were drives for dogs to be donated to the war effort. Frack didn’t learn until years later that virtually all the dogs were left behind. At one point he had one of the rare canine returnees, a dog with one eye shot out, who was paraded down Hollywood Boulevard in the back seat of Frack’s car. Signs on the vehicle urged people to donate their dogs.
One of the stranger experiences Frack had during his service was when he was asked to go on set in Hollywood, about 30 minutes from the base, where a movie was being filmed about military dogs. For three weeks, he said, he showed up and sat and did nothing. He never was told what he was supposed to do.
Finally, the movie wound up being canceled.
Soon afterward, he was back at the base, when two guys from the movie set dropped by, and asked him if he had any material given to him at the movie set. He told them he had a little bit in his desk.
“I was escorted out of the room. They picked my desk up, took it out, and I never saw my desk again or anything that was in it,” he said.
After serving two years in the Army, Frack became a civilian veterinarian in Los Angeles. He retired to Roseburg, and did relief work for a lot of local veterinarians and performed surgeries for Saving Grace Pet Adoption Center. Currently, he’s at For the Love of Paws, which provides veterinary service on a sliding scale.