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April 26. 2014 8:41PM

Lawmakers seek a day to honor heroes of a different breed


Rep. Katherine Rogers, D-Concord, and Rep. Skip Rollins, R-Newport, are co-sponsors of a bill to establish a Canine Veterans Day in New Hampshire. With Rollins is his dog Hero, a puppy his son Justin rescued in Iraq the night before he was killed in action in 2007. (Courtesy)

When called, they serve their country, in foreign lands and here at home. They protect our borders, airports and special places; search for bad guys and missing children; give comfort and, sometimes, their lives.

To mark this service, a bipartisan group of lawmakers wants to establish a Canine Veterans Day in New Hampshire, with "appropriate ceremonies and activities" held annually on March 13.

That date in 1942 was the official founding of the U.S. military's K-9 Corps, according to Rep. Katherine Rogers, D-Concord, the prime sponsor of House Bill 1451.

It's only fitting, she said, to ask the governor to proclaim a day "in honor of the dogs who have bled, suffered and died while serving in all of our wars and those still serving," as the bill puts it.

But the honor isn't limited to military dogs.

Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Rogers said, the role of dogs in domestic agencies has expanded, starting with the dogs that searched the rubble for survivors or remains in Manhattan and at the Pentagon. Some of those dogs later died from illnesses believed related to that work, she said.

Her bill cites canine units working in customs, border patrol, Secret Service, search and rescue, airports and federal and local police and fire agencies.

"They save lives, they save time, and it's time to recognize them," she told the Senate Rules, Enrolled Bills and Internal Affairs Committee at a hearing last Thursday.

Rogers and co-sponsor Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry, joke about their unlikely alliance. She's a liberal Democrat; he's a retired Marine and a conservative Republican. He calls them the "odd couple."

Still, both say this is an idea whose time has come.

Baldasaro told the Senate committee on Thursday that when Rogers first approached him, "I thought, 'You're off your rocker.'"

Then he thought about how often during his 22 years as a Marine he witnessed the courage of military dogs up close. He called Rogers right back and agreed to help.

"Looking back on my years of experience and seeing what these dogs do, I think it's a no-brainer for the state to recognize them," he said.

The bill may turn out to be one of the least controversial pieces of legislation in New Hampshire this year. It passed with a unanimous House committee recommendation and a voice vote in the full House; the Senate committee on Thursday likewise voted "ought to pass," 4-0.

State Police Lt. Gregory Ferry testified in favor of the bill before the Senate committee, for the Department of Safety.

A canine handler for 14 of his 19 years with the state police, he spoke of the many times his "partner" saved his life, both on patrol and when tracking dangerous suspects.

Rep. Skip Rollins, R-Newport, also co-sponsored House Bill 1451. His 22-year-old son, Army Spc. Justin Rollins, was killed in Iraq in 2007.

Rep. Rollins told the Senate committee about the injured, stray female dog that his son and his fellow soldiers had adopted in Iraq; the dog saved their lives by alerting them to an ambush on two separate occasions, he said.

"There is a definite bond between a soldier and a dog," Rollins said. "Those are battle buddies."

The night before he was killed in action, Justin Rollins looked for the platoon's dog and found her with a newborn litter of puppies. After his death, his family arranged for one of those puppies to be brought to New Hampshire.

The dog, named Hero, "has been a very, very wonderful help in our healing process," Rollins said.

Hero was among the dogs that appeared at the hearing on the bill in the House. Rogers obtained special permission to allow the dogs into the hearing room.

She couldn't swing the same for Thursday's Senate committee hearing in the State House, but vowed to hold a bill-signing on the State House steps if the measure passes - with all dogs invited to attend.

Earl Sweeney, assistant commissioner of safety, sent a letter supporting the measure, noting that dogs serve not only in the military, but also for state, county and local law enforcement agencies.

They work for Customs and Border Patrol as guard dogs; search for drugs and bombs; look for missing persons, escaped prisoners and human remains; search for victims trapped in building collapses and avalanches; and help fire investigators detect accelerants used to start arson fires, Sweeney said.

Noting that New Hampshire recognizes a state flower, tree, bird and insect, the commissioner wrote, "It certainly would not be inappropriate to honor a man's (and woman's) best friend in this way and commemorate their bravery in the service of society."

swickham@unionleader.com


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