LOS ANGELES — The act of Congress is in the books, the bills are paid, the sculptures are being cast, and one of the biggest parades in the world will start a glory tour and countdown to dedication.
The first national monument to pay tribute to military dogs will be unveiled Jan. 1 in California. The U.S. Military Working Dog Teams National Monument will honor every dog that has served in combat since World War II.
Some cities, cemeteries and military bases across the country already have such memorials. But none has been elevated to national monument level, where it will be in the company of the Statue of Liberty, Yosemite National Park and Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
In 2000, John Burnam, a 65-year-old veteran military dog handler, wrote a book called Dog Tags of Courage. A year later, he got an email from a reader wondering why there were no national monuments to the dogs of war.
In Dog Tags and a 2008 book, A Soldier's Best Friend, Burnam wrote about his time with the Army's 44th Scout Dog Platoon when he was in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968.
His first dog, Timber, was injured in an ambush a few months after they teamed up, so he spent most of his tour with a German shepherd named Clipper.
"He saved my life and saved the lives of others by alerting on ambushes, snipers and booby traps. I wanted to give something back to these animals that have done so much and asked for so little, except for food and water and the love of their handlers," said Burnam, who received the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
Back then, handlers were not able to adopt their dogs when they were retired.
"I always worried about them, but I know they died over there and they died as heroes," he said.
In 2004, Burnam and two other dog handler veterans pursued the idea in earnest, forming the John Burnam Monument Foundation. But it didn't take off until he met Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-N.C., two years later.
In 2007, Jones introduced legislation authorizing establishment of the monument. Passed unanimously by Congress, it was signed the next year by President George W. Bush, then amended and signed by President Barack Obama.
Burnam designed the monument, which depicts the modern military handler and four dogs — a Doberman, German shepherd, Labrador retriever and Belgian Malinois, all breeds used in wars.
The silicon bronze handler stands more than 9 feet tall and weighs 1,500 pounds. Each dog is about 5 feet tall and weighs 550 pounds. Burnam called them "hero sized."
The figures will stand on a pedestal in front of a large granite wall. One side of the wall will have photos etched in black marble veneer showing dog teams in combat from the different wars. The other side will have an inscription written by Burnam.
The sculptor, Paula Slater, said it was the largest and most complex monument she had ever done. Finishing a project of that size "is like giving birth to a baby — five of them."
Wraps come off
The public will get a sneak peek of the monument at the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena on Jan. 1, when a floral replica will be used as Natural Balance's float. Burnam, dogs and handlers from every military service branch will ride on it.
When the float goes on display afterward, the real bronze monument will make its public debut next to it, said Joey Herrick, president of Natural Balance Pet Foods, the corporate sponsor of the monument project, with Petco and Maddie's Fund, a family-funded pet rescue foundation, as co-sponsors.
Then the bronze monument will go on tour as it heads to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. That's where most of the nation's military dogs are trained.
Meanwhile, Tillman, the bulldog that helped get Burnam the monument funding, is also getting personal recognition for his military service. For his work entertaining troops at bases and for going through a mini Marine boot camp, the athletic bulldog has been made an honorary private first class.