Roger Thomsen was in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1970. This is part of his Vietnam story. For the complete interview, please go to billingsgazette.com/Vietnam.
In 1968, he had graduated from college and was in graduate school for business at the University of Montana.
Thomsen: "At that time, everybody was subject to the draft, but if you were going to school, you got a deferral, which I had. When I started graduate school, they were still allowing deferrals for graduate students, and then they changed their minds. So, I knew it was time to make a decision and do something different."
"I knew I was going to be drafted, or I could make a decision myself to get in, and at that time, I thought being an officer was a good idea, so I shopped the services and enlisted for officer candidate school in the Army. I ended up in Fort Benning in the OCS program. About three-quarters of the way through that, it was a 24-week program, the Army and I came to a mutual conclusion that I do not want to be an officer, and at that point, I was given some other choices."
Gazette: What were those other options?
Thomsen: "To immediately go to Vietnam, or they had a program at Fort Benning to train scout dog handlers. I always did like dogs, so sure, I'd like to work with the dogs. That was basically a three-month training program with the dogs."
Gazette: Were you aware that dogs were being used in Vietnam or that the Army had such a program?
Thomsen: "Not at that point. I don't think I was aware of it."
Gazette: Give us a basic idea on what dogs in Vietnam entail and what the training was like?
Thomsen: "There are several different kinds of dogs that they used as far as duties. There's the security dogs that everyone sees around the perimeter of an airbase. They're trained to be fairly ferocious and attack. Then, there were scout dogs which is what I ended up (doing). They're designed to be an early warning system — going down the trail in the infantry, the dog and handler walk first down the trail, so they walk point. The handler watches the dog. The dog gives signals as he goes down the trail. If there's something unusual out there, he's trained to pick up personnel, explosives, booby traps — anything unusual on the trail. Basically, just go down the trail is like going out for a walk with the dog, except you're watching what the dog is doing and the dog's aware that there are dangers out there and they are trained and he doesn't want to go through a trip wire. He doesn't want to step on explosives. He's trained not to go after personnel if they're out there. But they get so excited, they do break and go after enemy personnel in some situations."
Gazette: Do those dogs detect mines, too?
Thomsen: "That's a different type thing. We had a couple dogs in our unit which were specifically trained for mines. They're trained differently. They're trained to be rewarded by food at that time, and I don't know if they still are today. Today, they're a lot of dogs trained for explosives detection. But at that time, our scout dogs, they were trained to be rewarded by affection and attention."
Gazette: That seems like a pretty fun thing to do, considering you're in a war zone.
Thomsen: "It was fun. It was fun training, except for the danger. It was fun to be out with your dog in Vietnam."
Gazette: What's the three months training period like?
Thomsen: "We're trained with the dog from the day we start."
Gazette: Same dog?
Thomsen: "Same dog. Some of the units trained as a whole platoon. There were scout dog platoons ... In some cases, they would start with the dogs and then we'd ship over with their dogs as a unit. I went over as a replacement and consequently, my dog did not go with me. I picked up a dog that another handler had already been using in Vietnam. The other dog had proven to be an excellent scout dog. He worked very well for me also when I got there."
Gazette: Was it hard leaving the dog that you worked with? I would imagine you'd form an attachment to a dog like that.
Thomsen: "Certainly. All the handlers bonded with their dogs. When you left or when you lost a dog in combat, it was like losing your best friend."
Gazette: What do you work on during those 90 days of training? What do you do during the day?
Thomsen: "You get up in the morning and you clean up around your dog. Generally, we went out in a group of several dogs and several trainees, and we get out on the trail and work hiking trails and looking for anything out there that would be a danger — trip wires, personnel. They would put something out there that you were supposed to find and it could be personnel jumps out from behind a tree. Usually the dog knew about a person before anyone jumped out. But, you were trying to watch a dog. That would be the primary job. The dog was on the trail and he would do what every dog does, just going off for a walk. You watch him for any usual alerts, they call them. If they know there's something out there, they'll look at it, they'll lift their head, just a little indication that something different is out there. "
Gazette: You showed me a picture of the service dog you had over there. It looks like a German Shepherd. Is that what you're using? Shepherds, malinois?
Thomsen: "At that time, they were German Shepherds, predominantly or German Shepherd mixes. They didn't have to be purebred. Some of them were. My dog happened to be donated by a family in Tacoma, Wash., I found out later. The dogs, at that time, we were using were predominantly German Shepherds for that particular duty."
Gazette: Does a dog take longer than 90 days to train?
Thomsen:"Most of them would do it in 90 days. If the dog wasn't to the stage that they wanted to see them, they would hold them back and assign them to a new handler and a new group and let them go through the program for another 90 days before they shipped them over."
Gazette: You are trained as the solider who is along with the dog. Are you trained for just reading that dog? Or, if you're walking point in an infantry division, are you also training for combat?
Thomsen:"Certainly. You're right up front, so you have to be prepared for combat. Theoretically, when the dog alerts on something, if you have time, you call the guy behind you — there's something out there. I've done my job, now it's your job to find out what it is out there. That happened in several situations. I remember one time we had we had been landed by helicopters in an area, and we were approaching a little river and my dog was alerting like crazy. And, I said, 'Hey, there's somebody on the other side over there.' They said, 'OK, we've got to go over and find out what it is.' So we went and got across the other river, it was a nice cool, clear river like you'd find in Montana, and we got to the other side and we found a spot where somebody had been sitting there watching us, eating his lunch. There were pieces of lettuce and things on the ground, and he'd been there and the dog knew he was there."
Gazette: Was that a spooky feeling to know that the dog is right?
Thomsen:"You're just trained that they're going to find it. If the dog says there's something there, you better figure it out."
Gazette: So after you're training did you have orders to go to Vietnam?
Thomsen: "Initially, I was assigned to a group that was going to go to Korea. They were going to send the first scout dogs to Korea and time was passing. They wanted to get some work out of you after all the training. Nothing was happening about the unit going to Korea. At that point, they got orders for me to go to Vietnam. I was married at the time. I had chance to go home and see my wife for a couple of days, then get on a plane — a nice commercial jet — then to Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam."
Gazette: Was it hard leaving the dog you trained with for a dog that you hadn't worked with?
Thomsen: "No, not particularly. I knew I would be assigned a good dog when I got over there. I had some thought that I might see (the dog Thomsen trained with in the United States) over there, and I think I did see him, but it had been so long since I worked with him that he didn't really know, I think."
Gazette: Is that hard? When you have pets or animals — a dog you bond with. You have them for awhile, but these are not really pets. They're work dogs. So how do you keep that distance?
Thomsen: "You're in a training a situation when you're not actually working — you're working or training. At that time, the dogs were chained out with their own location. They didn't come in the building with us at that time. I think maybe that's changed with dogs today. We pretty much worked with them. If we weren't actually working with them, we were in the area generally that they were staked out. The area was right in the center of our area. Our area wasn't very big. Our platoon was about 30 guys. There were about 25 or 30 dogs."
"...They had a rotation. As you got to the top of the list, you were the next to go out on assignment. A regular infantry would call for a dog handler or dog-handling team and at that point, you'd get on a helicopter and fly out to wherever you're going to work with for about a week. After about a week, they'd figure the dog was getting tired and they'd bring it back and rest. They didn't care about the handler."