By CNN National Security Producer Jennifer Rizzo
When an insurgent rocket attack badly injured Cpl. Dustin Lee while he was on patrol in Iraq, his shrapnel-impaled partner, Lex, picked himself up to lie over Lee - an effort to protect him.
"He knew Dustin was injured," said Lee's mom, Rachel. Lex was his bomb-sniffing dog.
Lee didn't survive his injuries, but Lex did - and became a part of the Lee family when Rachel adopted him.
"When Dustin was killed, one of the first things I asked about was Lex, because of their camaraderie. They depended on each other"
Lex, a German shepherd, served in the Marines as a military working dog.
There are about 2,700 dogs serving worldwide, according to the Defense Department. Roughly 600 of these dogs are deployed in designated war zones overseas, including Afghanistan, areas of Africa and Kuwait.
These "war dogs" are used on patrols, in drug and explosives detection, and on specialized missions, like the Navy SEAL raid that took down Osama bin Laden last year.
But while these dogs walk side by side with their troop handlers or go on jumps from helicopters in service members' arms, the Defense Department classifies military working dogs as "equipment," a term that advocates want changed.
"These dogs are more soldiers than they are equipment," said Debbie Kandoll, founder of Military Working Dog Adoptions.
Kandoll, who helps civilians adopt military working dogs, estimates that the average war dog saves 150 soldier lives during its service.
Dogs have been serving in military conflicts since World War I, returning home after the conflicts ended. But thousands of dogs were left behind during the Vietnam War. Of the roughly 4,900 dogs that the United States used in Vietnam, around 2,700 were turned over to the South Vietnamese army, and a staggering 1,600 were euthanized, according to veteran and former Marine dog handler Ron Aiello.
"Equipment you can leave behind," Kandoll said. "We've left tanks in Iraq. Everywhere we've been, we've left stuff. If you reclassify them as manpower, then you can't leave them."
Today, dogs are no longer left in war zones. In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed a law that allowed the dogs to be adopted by former handlers, law enforcement agencies and civilians. But Kandoll says this law didn't go far enough and is pushing for an amendment to include the reclassification of war dogs.
U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R-North Carolina, agrees that a new classification is needed to elevate the "solider dog." Jones has been working on a bill that would reclassify the dogs as "K-9 members of the armed forces" and provide a way for the Defense Department to honor the dogs with official medals.
"Those who have been to war tell me that the dogs are invaluable," he said. "That they are just as much a part of a unit as a soldier or Marine. They are buddies."
Jones has submitted the proposed legislation to the Congressional Budget Office for a cost review. A response is expected by mid-February.
Despite the classification, the military says the dogs are respected.
"While there is a proper, legal classification for a working dog, we know they are living things, and we have great respect and admiration for them," said Lackland Air Force Base spokesman Gerry Proctor. The dogs are trained at Lackland. "A handler would never speak of their dog as a piece of equipment. The dog is their partner. You can walk away from a damaged tank, but not your dog. Never."
But if the dogs are retired on an overseas base, the military will not provide for their transportation back home, a practice that Kandoll says is like leaving them behind.
"The day the dog is retired, the dog is considered excess equipment and not entitled to any transport back," she said.
When a dog is retired on an overseas base and is adopted by someone in the United States, the adopter is charged the dog's shipping cost, which can be up to $2,000.
"It is essentially the same as a government surplus sale," Proctor said. "If the government has a surplus sale in Ramstein, Germany, and sells you a truck, then should the American taxpayer be on the hook to get that truck back to your house in Atlanta? The government doesn't own it once you buy it."
"That doesn't make sense to me," said Aiello, who thinks the military should wait to retire a dog until it's back in the United States. This way, it will be entitled to transportation benefits.
Kandoll says the cost to the taxpayer to send the dogs home would be minimal.
"We have half-empty military cargo transport planes transversing the globe daily. It would be more than feasible to place a retired military working dog on the transport plane back to the continental United States," Kandoll said. "Uncle Sam got them over there, and it's a point of honor for Uncle Sam to get his soldiers, whether they are four-legged or two-legged, back to the U.S."
But once home and placed with an adoptive family, medical bills are sure to stack up. Many of these retired dogs are more than 9 years old and are plagued with battlefield issues such as arthritis and even post-traumatic stress disorder. The Defense Department, Kandoll says, should allow military veterinarians to treat retired dogs.
A dog's medical history however is made clear during the adoption process, according to the Defense Department.
"So they go into it eyes wide open," Proctor said. "If you buy that truck, how far do you want the American taxpayer to be on the hook for the truck's oil changes and tuneups for its life?"
A one-month supply of all the medication the dog needs is also given to the adopter to ensure that the adoptive family has enough time to procure veterinary care for the animal, according to Proctor.
The brave dog Lex that stayed by his handler's side until the end is now 11 years old. He is doing well but has PTSD and pieces of shrapnel that cause spinal complications, Rachel Lee said.
"To be able to reclassify them would be to also get them help in a better manner," Lee said. "To be able to have them looked at differently - as a vet, as a soldier and to give them benefits."