SALT LAKE CITY –
On Nov. 24, 2020, a U.K. Military Working Dog (MWD) named Kuno was awarded the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) Dickin Medal, the U.K.'s highest award any animal can receive while serving in military conflict. Kuno was injured in military combat while deployed in support of elite U.K. Special Boat Service forces during a night raid in Afghanistan targeting al-Qaeda extremists.
According to the PDSA press release, "During the 2019 operation, four-year-old Belgian Shepherd Malinois, Kuno, and his handler were deployed in support of specialist U.K. and host nation forces on a compound raid against a well-armed and aggressive enemy when they came under attack.
Pinned down by grenade and machine-gun fire from an insurgent, the assault force was unable to move without taking casualties. Without hesitation, Kuno charged through a hail of gunfire to tackle the gunman, breaking the deadlock and changing the course of the attack, allowing the mission to be completed successfully."
Kuno suffered extensive injuries, including gunshot wounds to both hind limbs. He was treated by his handler and U.K. medics and medically evacuated to a U.S. Army Veterinary Treatment Facility in Afghanistan. "From the moment he got hit through extraction, he was under constant medical care," said Kuno's handler in the PDSA interview.
"Early that morning, my phone was blowing up with calls and text messages," said 149th Veterinary Detachment animal care specialist Sgt. 1st Class Ricardo Ramirez. About 4 a.m. is when the team started getting together, and the main team then went out to the clinic."
Kuno was no stranger to the U.S. Army veterinary personnel when he arrived that morning. "He is such a silly dog, and in my first six hours in Afghanistan, I was tossing the Kong for him," said U.S. Army veterinarian, Maj. Jake Lowry. "When I saw the handler roll up with Kuno on the stretcher, my heart sank for a few seconds before we started to get to work."
"He had some pretty significant injuries, a gunshot wound to his right thigh and a secondary gunshot wound that went through his left paw," said Lowry. "We had to perform an amputation on the paw as it couldn't be recovered."
The U.S. Army veterinarians and animal care specialists worked with U.S. Air Force human Orthopedic medical surgeons to perform a lifesaving operation on Kuno.
According to Lt. Col. Leah Smith, commander of the 149th Veterinary Detachment (Forward 2), it would be the first of many joint military efforts to ensure Kuno's survival. At one point, Kuno needed an antibiotic to ward off an infection, but it was not readily available due to the austere environment. Still, the U.S. Navy and other logistics personnel stepped up to make sure it arrived quickly. "We had volunteers from everywhere just because they had heard what he did…to protect his team," said Smith.
Multinational and joint personnel regularly asked for updates on Kuno's recovery.
"He became family almost, they wanted to know everything that was happening with Kuno, to what and how much medication he was receiving and if he was eating," said Staff Sgt. Marisela Ruedas, 149th Veterinary Detachment, clinic noncommissioned officer in charge. "We had a special bond between all of us and Kuno."
It took a few days for Kuno's appetite to return, but once he started eating, the team felt his chance of survival was strong. Kuno's drive was unstoppable. Even in the clinic, he would sometimes almost forget he was injured and get up to head out. Ruedas said that he was so strong that she was concerned he might just drag her out of the clinic with him.
Now happily retired, Kuno made a lasting impact on the U.S. Army veterinary team during the week he spent with them receiving critical care. "Kuno pushed my boundaries as a person, soldier, and medical asset," reflected Ramirez. "Ultimately, he made me a better soldier and a better person. I still talk to my daughter about him."
Due to COVID-19 limitations, Kuno's award ceremony was held virtually, November 24, 2020, and included interviews from the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, Kuno's handler, and members of the veterinary teams. The award presentation and video about Kuno's story can be found at www.pdsa.org.uk/kuno.
The U.S. Army veterinary team deployed to Afghanistan as part of the 149th Veterinary Detachment, a unit under the U.S. Army Reserve 807th Medical Command (Deployment Support). The relationships the team built with partner and allied nation dog handler teams and military veterinary services, U.S. Air Force human medical counterparts, and medical evacuation teams made sure the working dogs were able to get the care they needed. "Military Working Dogs are an essential part of the team; if they aren't able to work, then the team can't do their mission," explained Maj. Lowry.
Reflecting, Smith said, "Kuno's unstoppable drive and spirit made him so special to me. He is the epitome of what we hope to be as soldiers, self-sacrificing, determined, and unwavering in carrying out the mission."
Home from deployment for some time, Lt. Col. Smith has moved on to command a new veterinary detachment, and the team that treated Kuno has followed her to this new assignment, based in Garden Grove, California. "As you get ready to deploy, you look at who might be available to go and what skills they bring, and we really ended up with a dream team for that deployment."
Providing veterinary care to military working dogs is one important way U.S. Army veterinarians take care of people, in addition to their roles in food protection and public health.
"These soldiers never cease to impress me," said Maj. Gen. Joe Heck, 807th Medical Command (Deployment Support) commanding general. "One minute they're ensuring the health and welfare of the force, and the next they're literally operating on heroic Military Working Dogs. This team was comprised of the right soldiers, at the right place, at the right time."