War Dog Adoptions Rising but They Are Still Not Officially Recognized

Ablestock/Thinkstock(BURLINGTON, N.J.) -- As Americans across the country celebrate this Memorial Day by celebrating the men and women who have served in our armed services, another group of dedicated warriors goes unrecognized.

Officially, dogs that serve with U.S. soldiers are labeled "surplus equipment," but they are so much more to the soldiers they help on the battlefield.

Stories of the dogs used by SEAL Team 6 in the mission that killed Osama bin Laden have renewed interest in adopting the dogs as they retire from their military service. But adopting a canine veteran can cost as much as $2,000, as the military does not pay for the dogs' return trips home.

"They've [known] heavy training, combat, gunfire, explosions and just like a human, you should retire at some point and live a more peaceful life, and that's what these dogs need," Ron Aiello, president of the U.S. War Dogs Association, told ABC News. "They only have two, three years remaining in their life, and I think they should live it with a loving family and in a peaceful atmosphere."

Aiello knows how much a dog can help on the battlefield: his canine companion in Vietnam was named "Stormy."

"As a dog team, when you're out on patrol or mission, you live together 24/7. You never leave each other's side. You work together, you play together, you eat together," he told ABC News.

He had to leave Stormy behind in Vietnam, but he is now working to get war dogs reclassified as canine veterans, which would make it easier to adopt them since the military would pay to bring them home.

About 3,000 dogs -- mostly Dutch shepherds, German shepherds, Labrador retrievers and Malinois -- are deployed with American forces around the world. Military officials credit them with saving thousands of lives.

Every year, about 300 of these "war dogs" are retired from military service and put up for adoption. Since the May 2 raid on the bin Laden compound in Pakistan, officials said they'd received more than 400 adoption applications.

The Touchstone family, who live in the Los Angeles area, was more than happy to adopt eight-year-old German shepherd Bagger. They have given him a loving home, although the military would not tell the family anything about the dog's history. In the past, these hero dogs were rarely as lucky as Bagger.

"Dogs have been fighting with U.S. soldiers for centuries...unofficially in the Civil War, and then officially inducted into the U.S. Army in 1942 for World War II," Rebecca Frankel, deputy managing editor of, who writes "War Dog of the Week," told ABC News.

Only 204 of the estimated 4,900 dogs that were employed by the U.S military in the Vietnam War returned to the United States, according to military dog organizations. The ones that didn't make it back were euthanized, abandoned or given away to the South Vietnamese army.

President Clinton legalized the adopting of war dogs in 2000.

Last year, 338 dogs were adopted by families, police departments and other governmental agencies -- a fitting retirement for man's best friend, who has proved he can also be a nation's best friend.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Self-Defense or Murder?: Oklahoma Case Sparks Debate

Comstock/Thinkstock(OKLAHOMA CITY) -- A story of crime and punishment that is dividing an Oklahoma community has now entered the online world, raising questions about what is self-defense and first-degree murder.

The debate stems from the life sentence an Oklahoma City, Okla., jury handed down to pharmacist Jerome Ersland on May 26 for a first-degree murder conviction in the killing of 16-year-old Antwun Parker.

Ersland's attorneys told jurors throughout the murder trial that their client had acted in self-defense when he shot Parker six times during an attempted robbery at his Oklahoma City pharmacy. Prosecutors, meanwhile, argued Ersland went too far.

Defense attorney Irven Box asked jurors to close their eyes and imagine what they would do in the same situation.

After 3.5 hours of deliberation, the jury -- eight women and four men -- recommended a life sentence.

In the days since the verdict, an outpouring of support erupted in Ersland's hometown of Oklahoma City, with calls for Oklahama Gov. Mary Fallin to commute the local man's sentence.

"I'm gonna spend the rest of my career, however long it may be, trying to right this wrong," one prominent supporter, Oklahoma State Sen. Ralph Shortey (R), told ABC News.

Ersland, 59, had been hailed as a hero for protecting two co-workers during the May 19, 2009, robbery attempt at the Reliable Discount Pharmacy in south Oklahoma City.

Dramatic surveillance video of the attempted burglary shows Parker and an accomplice running into the pharmacy in the crime-ridden neighborhood and pointing a gun directly at Ersland. The video then shows Ersland, a former Air Force lieutenant colonel, firing a pistol at the two men, hitting Parker with one shot that knocked him to the ground. After chasing Parker's accomplice out of the store, Ersland retrieved a second gun and returned to shoot Parker five more times, 46 seconds after firing the first shot.

Ersland's lawyer told ABC News that the pharmacist saw Parker moving and thought he was still alive, and still a threat.

Now the debate over his sentencing has taken to Facebook, with pages both for and against Ersland's punishment, and Twitter, where posts and tweets have been just as divided. One Facebook page supporting Ersland has more than 2,000 followers, while other groups say his punishment is deserved. Facebook pages such as "Free Jerome Ersland" and "Pardon for Jerome Ersland" have also sparked petition sites with goals of sending more than 5,000 signatures to Gov. Fallin.

But any action by the governor on the case will not be soon. First, Ersland must go before the judge in the case, Oklahoma County District Judge Ray Elliott, on July 11, for sentencing. The judge could suspend part or all of the life term. If he chooses to uphold the jury's full suggestion, Ersland will not be eligible for parole for another 38 years and three months.

Jurors had the option of finding Ersland guilty of first-degree manslaughter instead of murder, or of acquitting him.

Ersland's attorneys have vowed to appeal the murder conviction of their client, and have also asked that the formal sentencing be rescheduled for as soon as possible.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Missing Nursing Student Michelle Le Vanishes From California Hospital

Goodshoot RF/Thinkstock(HAYWARD, Calif.) -- Police are searching for missing nursing student Michelle Hoang Thi Le, who disappeared while on a break from making clinical rounds at a hospital in Hayward, Calif.

Le, 26, is a student at Samuel Merritt University in Oakland, Calif. She disappeared around 7 p.m. May 27.

"The entire Samuel Merritt University community is deeply concerned about the disappearance of our nursing student Michelle Le," said Elizabeth Valente, a spokeswoman for Samuel Merritt University. "She was last seen Friday evening after she did not return to the hospital from the parking garage at the Kaiser Permanente Hayward Medical Center."

Le's car was found a few blocks from the hospital on Saturday, according to a statement by the Hayward Police Department. Le had her car keys and cellphone with her but has not responded to calls.

Authorities have traced her cellphone signal to Oakland, Union City and Fremont, ABC affiliate KGO reported, but can no longer pick it up, KGO reported.

"The reality is, it's a pretty large area," Hayward Police Lt. Roger Keener told KGO. "We've had the helicopter fly over the area...We haven't found anything at all that leads us [in] one direction or another, that tells us this is a foul play incident or anything." They are still treating Le's disappearance as a missing persons case.

Le reportedly told some classmates that she had plans to go to Reno, Nev., Friday night, police said.

Le does not have any medical or psychiatric conditions that could account for her disappearance, police said.

Anyone with information that may help locate Le should contact Hayward Police Department at 510-293-7000.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


California Toddler Shoots, Kills, 6-Year-Old Sister

Comstock/Thinkstock(FRESNO, Calif.) -- Police in California are investigating how a 2-year-old boy got hold of a semi-automatic handgun and fatally shot his 6-year-old sister in Northeast Fresno on Sunday.

"He was in possession of a semi-automatic handgun. The gun accidentally discharged, striking the child," Sgt. Stephen Viveros said, according to ABC News affiliate KSFN-TV.

Authorities say the children's father reported the shooting after hearing a gun discharge from another room. At least two other children witnessed the deadly shooting, police said.

The parents have not been charged with a crime as investigators continue to assess the circumstances surrounding the shooting.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Volunteers Canvas Funeral Homes for Forgotten Veterans

Jupiterimages/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- When Catherine Grant's husband died in 1994, she never imagined she would find his obituary in the paper 17 years later. But there it was, under the heading "Veterans Honored."

"It was very strange," said Grant, 77, who lives in St. Louis. "I never look at the obituaries. But that day I did."

Over in Louisville, Ky., Carolyn Russell, 72, was about to receive a shocking phone call.

Her brother Donald Ritz, a World War II combat veteran, had died of throat cancer in 1987 -- but she never found out where he had been cremated. Until this year.

"I was just thrilled to death, it kind of gave me cold chills," she said.

The non-profit group Missing in America Project (MIAP) was behind the burials of both of these forgotten veterans.

In the central U.S., Dale Lamond, a former Marine who helps coordinate burials for MIAP, delivered the news to Russell.

"It's gratifying that you find these veterans that have been lying there all these years, some of the families didn't know there were there," he said.

Missing in America, the passion project of founder and former U.S. Army Maj. Fred Salanti, holds military burials for unclaimed veterans' remains. The group has nearly 700 volunteers in 48 states canvas funeral homes searching for veterans' remains in backrooms and storage areas where, in many cases, they have been long forgotten.

Since its inception in 2007, 63-year-old Salanti says MIAP has visited more than 1,400 funeral homes and found more than 1,200 veteran remains. Of those, 1,049 have been interred.

As soon as they find a veteran at a funeral home, MIAP volunteers examine funeral home notes and the death certificate, track down living relatives, and study genealogy resources and old Department of Defense databases. Sometimes the most time-consuming process can be obtaining proof of military service.

Most of the time the MIAP volunteers are the only people to attend a veteran's military burial. And that's exactly what drives them.

"That's a real tearjerker knowing that we, the Missing in America people...are the family," Salanti said. "They accomplished something honorable, respectful and they're receiving what was due them for service to the country."

The MIAP volunteers are mostly retired, many of them former servicemen and some who aren't, but all consider this a calling.

"When I found out there were this many people who have fought for our country and they're sitting on shelves it moved me to a point that I said let's do something about it," said Dave Woodcook, 63, who joined MIAP about five years ago and began leading burial escorts near Redding, Calif.

Salanti says the unclaimed veterans' remains are nobody's fault: funeral homes aren't required to seek out anyone and next of kin and funeral homes aren't required to report the unclaimed remains to the VA.

"A lot of people come out and say the VA needs to be in charge of this, but how does the VA know [where the remains are]? They don't have authority to go into a private funeral home," he said.

The laws regulating how long funeral homes are required to keep remains vary from state to state, and 13 states, such as Maryland and Nevada, don't have any laws governing unclaimed remains.

There are 19,903 funeral homes in the U.S. according to the National Funeral Directors Association, and nearly all of them have unclaimed cremated remains.

Last Thursday Republicans Pat Tiberi and Steve Stivers introduced the Missing in America Act, which would require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to help determine if unclaimed remains are eligible for burial at a national cemetery. The bill also asks the VA to work with veterans service organizations and other groups, including MIAP, in possessing the abandoned or unidentified remains.

An earlier version of the bill was introduced in 2009 when the House was controlled by Democrats, and it fell short of the required number of co-sponsors.

Salanti said, "The chances of getting this law passed now are tremendously better and it's just exciting that we're getting some recognition at the national level."

For now, MPIA continues searching funeral homes and tracking down documents, working without pay. The organization is run by individual donations, without any corporate sponsors. It's tough, at times, Salanti says, "We're in tears and crying half the time. My nickname is waterworks."

But for him, in the end, it's worth it.

"We represent what those guys lived for. Otherwise they're going to be alone going on their last journey."

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Endeavour Undocks from Space Station, Heads Back to Earth

NASA TV(HOUSTON) -- Space shuttle Endeavour undocked from the International Space Station late Sunday night and is now on its way back to Earth.

Before getting on course to return home, the six-man crew on board had a rendezvous with the ISS shortly after separating from it to test a systems visual navigation system known as the Sensor Test for Orion Relative-navigation Risk Mitigation, or STORRM.  NASA said "the system is being developed for use on future spacecraft."

During their stay at the ISS, the astronauts also installed a $2 billion alpha magnetic spectrometer, which could prove or disprove the Big Bang Theory of how the universe was formed, and conducted four spacewalks.  They will complete their 16-day mission when they arrive back on Earth on Wednesday, June 1.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Memorial Day Outrage: Feds on Lookout for Fake War Heroes

Jupiterimages/LiquidLibrary(WASHINGTON) -- As millions of Americans honor the service and sacrifices of veterans this Memorial Day, the FBI said it will be busy keeping a close eye out for reports of "frauds" who don fake medals and tell tales of false heroism in hopes of taking advantage of honest patriotism.

While at any particular time the FBI is investigating from 15 to 30 cases of people illegally posing as American war heroes, the Bureau said public veteran celebrations, like the parades taking place across the nation Monday, are ripe targets for impostors.

"They're going to come out of the woodwork," Don Shipley, a private watchdog and former U.S. Navy SEAL, told ABC News. "This is like Christmas for a phony."

Wearing a service medal or claiming to be a medal winner is illegal under U.S. law in most cases and in the past five years alone the Department of Justice has charged dozens of people for violations -- including five so far this year.

In addition to FBI investigators, private veteran watchdogs like Shipley and Home of Heroes founder Doug Sterner say they receive thousands of tips about questionable military service claims, especially on patriotic holidays.

"We always see them come out in droves on Memorial Day, Veterans Day and the Fourth of July and I don't expect this year will be any different," Sterner said.

Following the fame garnered by the U.S. Navy SEALs after the successful operation that killed Osama bin Laden in early May, the number of fake SEAL cases skyrocketed, Shipley said.

"U.S. military medals are symbols of heroism, patriotism, and honor," the FBI said in a statement to ABC News. "The FBI is proud of the men and women who have served our country dutifully. Those who impersonate veterans or wear an unearned military medal are frauds and demean what the medals are meant to honor."

Despite several convictions for fakers in past years, a group of U.S. congressmen is pushing to expand the law under a new version of the Stolen Valor Act, which would make it illegal for anyone to benefit in any way from lying about military medals -- from getting a free beer at a bar to season sports tickets.

A previous iteration of the Stolen Valor Act, passed with overwhelming congressional support in 2006, made it illegal for anyone to wear a medal or claim they had been awarded a medal when they had not. However, that law was ruled unconstitutional by one appeals court last August after one man who pleaded guilty to falsely claiming to be a decorated Marine said it violated the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech.

"What this bill would do is that it makes it more of an anti-fraud bill," said Congressman and U.S. Army Reserve Col. Joe Heck, who sponsors the Stolen Valor Act of 2011. "It says if you lie about your military service in order to gain something of value then you have committed fraud. I think it will close the constitutionality loophole that has caused problems for the original law.

"I find it really deplorable that individuals would try and capitalize on other American service to their nation," he said.

Shipley said he strongly supports Heck's bill and he believed other veterans would as well.

"There's got to be a line drawn somewhere," he said. "Not just for the young Army guys and young Marines, but the parents, the kids, the wives -- they [the impostors] are stealing honor from all these people."

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Obama: 'There's No Doubt That Joplin Will Rebuild'

The White House/Pete Souza(JOPLIN, Mo.) -- Assuming his role as the nation's pastor on Sunday, one week to the day after a tornado tore a gash through the heart of this deeply religious town, President Obama delivered a sermon reflecting on the heroics of those who were killed saving others in the storm.

"It's in these moments, through our actions, that we often see the glimpse of what makes life worth living in the first place," Obama said.  "In the face of winds that showed no mercy, no regard for human life ... it was ordinary people, swiftly tested, who said, 'I'm willing to die right now so that someone else might live.'"

In his remarks before some 2,000 Joplin residents on the campus of Missouri Southern State University, the president mentioned two "everyday heroes" -- Dean Wells, a manager at a Home Depot, and Christopher Lucas, a manager at a Pizza Hut.

Both men died saving others: Wells, shepherding people to safety until he was crushed by a collapsing wall, and Lucas, who left the safety of a freezer shielding more than a dozen people to search for a rope to keep the door shut.

"You see, there are heroes all around us, all the time," the president said.  "They pass us in the aisle wearing an orange apron.  They come to our table at a restaurant and ask us what we'd like to order."

"It's this knowledge -- the knowledge that we are inclined to love one another, that we're inclined to do good, to be good -- that causes us to take heart," Obama said.

Then the president quoted Corinthians:

"You have lived the words of scripture: 'We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed.  We are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cut down, but not destroyed.'"

Stirring the crowd to an ovation, the president pledged that the nation's support would continue to this community, even after the media turns away.

"There's no doubt in my mind that Joplin will rebuild," he said.  "Your country will be there with you every single step of the way.  We're not going anywhere."

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


One Month Later, Alabama Tornado Recovery Slow

ABC News(TUSCALOOSA, Ala.) -- More than a month after devastating tornadoes hit Tuscaloosa, Alabama, killing more than 300 people, little rebuilding has been done and several survivors are still living in shelters.

In fact, five people are still reported missing weeks after a tornado cut a six-mile-wide hole in the heart of Tuscaloosa.

While most residents said that the federal government appeared quickly and came to the rescue, they said the government is starting to move more slowly these days.

"America should definitely not forget about us," Tuscaloosa resident Naomi Wilson told ABC News.  "These people in this area are going to be needing help for so long."

Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox, who has not taken a day off since the tragic storm, told ABC News that rebuilding can't begin while debris is still being moved off roads.

"You just can't change this overnight," he said.  "Even though the damage that was sustained to Tuscaloosa took six minutes, it's probably going to take us six years to fully recover."

Nearly 7,000 homes were destroyed when the tornado hit on April 27, but many people are still homeless.  Close to 100 residents are still staying in the last open shelter, which will be closed next week.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Department of Justice, Texas Battle Over 'No Pat-Down' Law

Creatas/Thinkstock(AUSTIN, Texas) -- In a showdown with national implications for travelers, the Department of Justice has threatened to cancel flights to and from Texas if the state's legislators enact a law forbidding security pat-downs that include private parts.

John Murphy, U.S. Attorney for the western district of Texas, wrote a letter to leaders of the Texas state legislature indicating that if the bill is enacted, the TSA would "likely be required to cancel any flight…for which it could not ensure the safety of passengers and crew."

House bill 1937, passed unanimously by the Texas House this month, forbids Transportation Security Administration officials from intentionally touching the private parts of another person.  The bill had passed through a Senate committee unanimously before Murphy sent the letter this week.

"As you no doubt are aware, the bill makes it a crime for a federal Transportation Security Official (TSO) to perform the security screening that he or she is authorized and required by federal law to perform," Murphy wrote.

In response to Murphy's threat, Texas state representative David Simpson wrote a response correcting alleged "inaccuracies" in the attorney general's letter and saying that the federal government is "attempting to deprive the citizens of Texas of their constitutional rights."

"The attorney general's letter claims we are stopping all searches.  The bill just says you can't touch privates without probable cause," Simpson told ABC News.  "This bill was supported unanimously by Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives."

Simpson said the bill states that a TSA official commits an offense if "without probable cause performs a search for the purpose of granting access to a publicly accessible building or form of transportation and intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly touches the anus, sexual organ, buttocks or breasts of the other person."

Simpson said if only 3 percent of air travelers in the U.S. undergo pat-downs, as cited previously by the TSA, then flights to Texas could be shut down "because TSA would not be able to ensure the safety of passengers and crew if agents could not touch the genitals of 3 percent."

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio