Before his deployment to Vietnam in 1966, Ron Aiello spent three months in Georgia training Stormy, an 18-month-old German shepherd, to sniff out explosives and snipers. “I volunteered for dog-training school because I was looking for something interesting,” says the Burlington resident, now 76.
Even as the training progressed, Aiello, a Marine corporal, had to wonder how his new best friend would perform in combat. The question was answered when he and Stormy, on their first mission, led a patrol into a clearing. Stormy stopped and looked to the right. Aiello knelt out of caution—just in time to avoid a sniper’s bullet. “If it hadn’t been for Stormy,” says Aiello, “I would have been killed.”
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Today, Aiello is chairman of the board of the United States War Dog Association, which he and other Vietnam-veteran dog handlers formed in 1999. In 2002, the group initiated Operation Military Care K-9, which sends comfort items to handlers and their dogs, mostly in Afghanistan and Iraq. To help deal with the sweltering, sand-blown conditions, the dogs receive cooling vests, doggie goggles, eye and ear washes, and paw-and-nose cream.
To date, the group has sent 35,000 packages. For retired dogs adopted by their handlers, the association offers a prescription drug program and covers other medical expenses—even doggie wheelchairs.
In 2006, the association dedicated a memorial honoring the nation’s war dogs and their handlers at the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Holmdel. The bronze statue of a kneeling soldier and his dog evokes the day Stormy saved Aiello from a sniper.
Stormy continued to lead patrols with other handlers after Aiello left Vietnam in 1967. When the war ended, Aiello hoped to adopt Stormy, but he was unable to trace her. “She was a great dog,” he says.
The New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial will hold a virtual ceremony (accessible via Facebook or YouTube) at 11 am on Memorial Day, May 31.Click here to leave a comment