SAFETY HARBOR (FOX 13) - Bill Schroeder served in the United States Army for three years, from 1966 until 1969, patrolling the Korean Demilitarized Zone. He comes to Veterans Memorial Park in Safety Harbor to pay tribute to a fellow soldier who didn't come home.
"Everywhere that I went, Bandit went. Everywhere," he recalled.
U.S. Army scout dog 'Bandit' served 18 months alongside Bill in Korea. Wounds from a tough goodbye half a century ago still run deep.
"He's sitting there in front of the dog hutch and I'm driving away, and I...I'll always remember him," said a tearful Bill.
Bill continued to serve back home as a police officer, but never forgot Bandit.
"It was a hole in my heart for 50 years," he said.
Part of that hole was filled in 2016 after Bill's wife told his story to an Air Force representative.
Bill's phone rang.
"He said, 'The way I see it, the United States government owes you a dog!'" Bill remembered.
Since then, the Schroeder’s have adopted two war dogs. 'Phantom,' a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, died of cancer. Their current dog, 'Kidd,' is retired from the British Army. He served in Afghanistan for 9 and 1/2 years.
Bill says caring for war dogs is a different kind of pet ownership.
"You can't explain to them that it’s over, war is over. They come home and they are still fighting the battle. This isn't a pet," he explained.
It takes a deep commitment emotionally and financially. Many war dogs come home with a host of health issues and vet bills can skyrocket.
"People just need to realize what a contribution they've made. They've saved hundreds of lives in current combat and thousands of lives in Vietnam," Bill said.
The U.S. War Dog Association advocates for these four-legged heroes, saying they should have access to the same health benefits as human veterans.
"They still need some type of compensation for these dogs. They served their country. They retired. They get nothing!" Bill offered.
Bill's dog during service, Bandit, was euthanized two months after he left Korea.
A 2016 defense bill now mandates retired military dogs be brought back to the U.S. after serving. As far as adopting war-dogs, Bill says it can be tough and isn't for everyone.
LINK: Learn more about the War Dog Association at www.uswardogs.org