The highest military honor awarded to animals has been given to Sasha, a yellow Labrador army dog who was killed on active service in Afghanistan. Sasha was four years old when she died alongside her handler, Lance Corporal Kenneth Rowe, when both were caught in a Taliban ambush on July 24th 2008. Rocket-propelled grenades took both their lives. Sasha is now the 65th recipient of the Peoples’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) Dickin Medal, equivalent to a Victoria Cross.
Sasha the army dog was trained to sniff out weapons and went ahead on sorties to make routes safe for patrols. On one occasion, her thorough search of a Garmsir building led to the uncovering of two unexploded mortars and a huge quantity of explosive. She undoubtedly saved the lives of large numbers of both civilians and soldiers.
Renowned for her determination to keep on pushing forward, her forbearance and courage was a great boost to morale, and her fortitude under attack was inspirational. Having Sasha in the patrol gave the soldiers in her unit confidence, as she was so skilled at sniffing out weaponry. In her canine CV she had fifteen confirmed findings of mortars, Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and other hidden dangers.
When Sasha was assigned to Kenneth Rowe of the 2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment, the two quickly became inseparable. Kenneth was 24 years old. Together, they were seen as the best handler and army dog in the entire Kandahar region.
Kenneth Rowe was due to go home to West Moor, near Newcastle, but he deferred his leave as he had concerns about lack of cover for his colleagues on a planned operation. He should have left Afghanistan the day before he died. The young man and his dog were both heroes.
Recognising their achievements, Colonel Neil Smith, director of Army Veterinary and Remount, said how sad it was that the award was posthumous. However, it gave them a chance to celebrate the “immeasurable contributions” both had made to the military. Smith said that Sasha’s “devotion and skills” had “undoubtedly saved the lives of many troops.” He asked to remember the contribution made by the army dogs and their handlers and said thoughts remain with Lance Corporal Rowe’s family.
Kenneth’s mother, Lynn Rowe, after hearing the news, was “incredibly proud” and remarked that “Kennth always adored animals and loved working with his dogs.”
The director general of the PDSA, Jan McLoughlin, added to Sasha’s eulogy. McLoughlin said the Dickin Award was a reminder of the “huge debt” owed to animals in times of conflict and remarked on the poignancy of the honor being given on the eve of the centenary of World War One. “Her story exemplifies the dedication of man’s best friend”
Since its inception in 9143 the Dickin Medal has been given to a range of animals. They include 32 messenger pigeons who played such a crucial part in World War Two. The first of these was White Vision, a pigeon who helped rescue an RAF crew. Another was Princess, who had one of the finest records in the Pigeon Service.
Three horses have been honored, including Upstart, the police horse who was showered by glass in a bomb blast in Bethnal Green, London in 1947, but carried on working.
Simon is the only feline winner to date of the Dickin Medal. He was wounded on board HMS Amethyst in 1949, but he carried on with his vital war work of ridding the ship of rats.
More recently, German shepherds Apollo and Lucky have been Dickin Medal winners, Lucky for her skill in tracking and detecting the enemy in the 2007 Malaya campaign and Apollo as the exemplar of all the search and rescue dogs who worked in the aftermath of 9/11. The bronze medal is simply inscribed, “For Gallantry” and “We Also Serve.”
As the 65th recipient of the Dickin Medal, albeit , sadly, posthumously, army dog Sasha is a poignant reminder of the bravery of all animals who serve their countries.
By Kate Henderson