In April 1968, Cpl. Frank Gavaldon and his sentry dog, Silver, were patrolling a missile site on Ky Hoa Island during the Vietnam War.
Silver sensed something unusual near the perimeter of the base, and Gavaldon, a 22-year-old Marine with the 2nd Light Anti-Aircraft Missile Battalion, spotted two armed intruders lifting their heads above the grass.
Trained to react to threats, the German shepherd instantly wanted to attack. Gavaldon had two choices: turn Silver loose on the intruders or keep the dog by his side.
He signaled Silver to stay. Holding the dog with one hand, Gavaldon fired across the 20 feet between him and the infiltrators.
Keeping Silver out of the conflict likely saved his life.
“My dog would have been killed by either my fire or theirs,” Gavaldon said later.
After running out of ammunition, Gavaldon moved into the shadows of a nearby missile and called out for backup.
Army personnel responded, setting off a flare and firing rounds from bunkers toward the intruders. Bloodstained clothing was found where the infiltrators were spotted, but the intruders had gotten away.
“It was just a day at the office,” said Gavaldon, now a 70-year-old University Place resident.
Not to the Vietnam Dog Handlers Association, which in a ceremony Oct. 15 awarded Gavaldon and Silver its Warrior’s Medal of Valor for their service.
Gavaldon traveled to Branson, Missouri, to receive the medal at a VDHA reunion event.
“Everyone was very nice there,” Gavaldon said. “They were kind enough to honor me with this medallion and certificate in a beautiful wooden presentation case.”
In 1968, Gavaldon’s battalion captain, T.R. Snead, wrote a report on the incident at the missile base. He called Gavaldon and Silver’s actions “excellent.”
Snead praised Gavaldon for showing “devotion to duty by his immediate action and undoubtedly saved the destruction of expensive equipment by his alertness.”
Gavaldon was recommended for an award, but he and Silver never received official recognition for their actions.
Gavaldon, who served three tours in Vietnam from 1965 to 1969, remained in the military for another 15 years before retiring as a staff sergeant.
After graduating from Central Washington University he worked as an investigator, an industrial relations agent and a program manager for the state.
He also was a member of the State Veterans’ Advisory Council and an adviser to CWU and the federal Justice Department.
Gavaldon is a lifelong member of the Vietnam Dog Handlers Association, which works to highlight the accomplishments of military dog handlers during the Vietnam War and provide fellowship among handlers across the U.S. armed forces.
He received the Warrior’s Medal of Valor from U.S. Rep. Billy Long of Missouri on behalf of himself and Silver.
“Sitting there,” Gavaldon recalled, “I thought, ‘I wish my dog were here.’ ”
Federal law prohibited Gavaldon from bringing Silver back to the United States after his service. When Gavaldon left Vietnam in 1969, Silver was reassigned to a new handler and became a full-time scout dog because of his skills at detection.
Gavaldon spoke to Silver’s next handler in 2011, but knows nothing of how the dog fared after Gavaldon left Vietnammore than four decades ago.
Unlike when Gavaldon was in the military, military dogs now can stay with their handlers after their duty is done.
“It’s a whole different world as far as dog handlers are concerned,” he said. “I’m happy to see that.”
Gavaldon said he wished he could have brought Silver home after their service together in Vietnam.
“You love your dog, take care of your dog, always feed your dog first, but you can’t bring your dog home,” he said. “That was a heartbreaker.”