Posted : Monday Dec 10, 2007 8:20:07 EST
After all, the family lived in base housing, well within the confines of Camp Lejeune, N.C. It’s a place where youngsters still ride bikes to school with little fear of drug dealers or predators, and neighbors generally look out for each other.
But news from one of the neighborhood kids who came running up to her house on a late March afternoon in 2005 changed Gaston’s perception of base housing — and changed her family’s life.
The message was short: Ashley’s hurt. She was bitten by a dog. She needs to go to the hospital.
Ashley had stopped at a friend’s house to see if he could come out and play. Before she reached the door, the family’s Rottweiler escaped from its poorly secured fence, grabbed Ashley’s head in its powerful jaws and began to attack.
Two-and-a-half years later, Ashley still has nightmares. She has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She faces three, maybe four rounds of cosmetic surgery, but doctors say that mentally, she “just wouldn’t be able to handle going through it yet,” according to her mother.
Amy Gaston holds the dog’s owner and the Corps responsible. She’s seeking $5 million in damages and is hoping to send a message so that what happened to her daughter will not happen to other children living on base.
In a dog-loving nation — where nearly 368,000 people are sent to emergency rooms for dog bites each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — Ashley’s story raises questions about allowing aggressive breeds to live in the quiet confines of family housing.
Odd as it sounds, maybe it’s time for the Corps to say no to “devil dogs.”
Teufel HundenFor their part, Marines love dogs.
That’s due, in part, to the fact that Marines are often compared to dogs. Legend holds that during World War I, German soldiers nicknamed the ferocious leathernecks they faced “Teufel Hunden,” or devil dogs. It’s a tale the Corps embraced, and before long, a bright orange recruiting poster emerged, depicting an English bulldog in a Marine helmet chasing a dachshund in a German helmet, the smaller dog fleeing with its tail between its legs.
On Oct. 14, 1922, the English bulldog became the Corps’ official mascot, after then-Brig. Gen. Smedley Butler signed the enlistment papers for Pvt. Jiggs, a registered English bulldog obtained by Marines at Quantico, Va.
But these days, the bulldog might not be tough enough to carry the Corps on its back. One of the most popular quotes attached to Marine e-mails is attributed to Rear Adm. Jay Stark, from remarks made on the Corps’ 220th birthday in 1995:
“Marines I see as two breeds, Rottweilers or Dobermans, because Marines come in two varieties: Big and mean, or skinny and mean,” Stark said. “They’re aggressive on the attack and tenacious on defense. They’ve got really short hair and always go for the throat.”
Mainstream American culture has done its part to increase the profile of big, aggressive dogs as pets. Rapper DMX is often photographed with his pit bulls, as is actress Jessica Alba and celebrity chef Rachael Ray.
Even the “Little Rascals” dog, Petey, was a pit bull, but no one seemed worried for Alfalfa’s safety. Despite the worldwide debate over pit bulls, the breed is the most popular at Camp Lejeune, according to base registration records.
Sgt. Chris Polarbear received his pit bull, Bluto, as a homecoming present from Iraq. During an afternoon of playtime at a dog park that opened recently in the Midway Park housing area, Bluto strolled around, accepting pats from strangers. The 65-pound dog was the runt of the litter, but he still tends to intimidate any strangers he and his owner encounter.
“He’s never attacked anybody,” Polarbear said. “He’s never bitten anybody. He’s excellent.”
After pit bulls, Lejeune Marines favor Labrador retrievers and Chihuahuas.
Residents of Camp Pendleton, Calif., housing favor Labs most. Lab mixes and terrier breeds, excluding pit bulls, are also among the most popular there, according to base animal control officials.
At Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., it’s Labs, boxers and Australian shepherds.
The Corps’ beloved mascot, the English bulldog, likely doesn’t make it to the top of the lists because they tend to be expensive and have their share of health problems, including poor eyesight, breathing problems, susceptibility to heat and extreme sensitivity to cold.
Only Marine Corps Base Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, prohibits pit bulls on base. Other military services on the island do the same thing.
Polarbear would be lost there, as he and Bluto are inseparable. They visit the Wounded Warrior Barracks. They go bar hopping. Polarbear said he’s made a point to expose his dog to other people and other dogs.
“If you’re going to be a dog owner, there are opportunities out there,” he said. “I spend more time with that dog — I call him my son.”
The attack on Ashley Gaston came out of nowhere, however, and was by a dog used to having a kid around.
When Ashley’s father, a staff sergeant, came home carrying his daughter in his arms, her honey-colored hair was matted with a mixture of blood and flesh.
Amy Gaston lifted Ashley’s hair from the right side of her head to get answers. What she found makes her cry even today.
“Part of her E-A-R is gone,” she recalls saying to Ashley’s father, spelling the word to avoid shocking the child further.
“He goes, ‘What?’” she said. “I lifted up her hair again to see if it was just a dream. I didn’t want her to see it. I kind of nonchalantly covered [her ear] and picked it up.”
As Ashley’s father put her into the car to make the trip to Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune, just down the road from their home, Amy Gaston carried the severed portion of her daughter’s ear to the kitchen and put it into a bag of ice.
Ashley remained in the hospital for nearly a week. But before she was released, and just two days after her first surgery, her father deployed to Iraq.
The attack left Ashley with a gash on the right side of her neck, a severed section of her right ear and puncture wounds to her right shoulder and forearm. Today, if you didn’t know she had been attacked by a dog, you might not notice. But her family notices, she notices and kids at school notice.
A faint scar runs the length of her right jaw line. The portion of her ear that was severed was reattached, but she needs reconstructive surgery.
It was in the days after the attack that Amy Gaston learned that the gate on the fence where the dog lived was secured by a single, elastic bungee cord, according to court documents. The gate was eight inches longer than the gate opening. That combination allowed the dog to escape and attack Ashley from behind, according to court documents.
Amy Gaston said the boy who lived at the house rode up on his bike during the attack. When the dog saw him, it retreated to the backyard, she said. After the attack was reported to the base Provost Marshal’s Office, the dog was put down.
The lawsuitThe Gastons were new to the Lejeune neighborhood when the attack occurred. They had recently moved from Washington, D.C., where they lived in Bellevue Naval Housing.
“I had been [at Lejeune] for three weeks, and I thought I was safe,” Amy Gaston said. “I thought my kids were in a safe environment. They were pretty stiff on their regulations and following them in Washington. I believed in government housing that we would be OK.”
Her attorney, David Sheldon, says the government is responsible.
“Had they done their job, she wouldn’t have been attacked,” he said.
Regulations require that the base housing office approve fencing for all domestic animals, he said, adding that they failed to inspect the fence. The lawsuit also argues that the defendant, a staff sergeant assigned to 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, did not request a fencing inspection.
Attempts to reach the staff sergeant for comment were unsuccessful.
Amy Gaston and her husband are now separated; she and her three children eventually moved to Upper Marlboro, Md., where the lawsuit was filed in U.S. district court.
The government filed a motion to dismiss the case in September, arguing that, under a North Carolina law, the government can’t be held liable for an alleged failure to enforce statutory regulations. The motion also states that the government did not know of any aggressive tendencies in the dog.
“The North Carolina law provides that you can’t sue the government for damages based on a claim that the government failed to enforce a regulation,” said Rod Rosenstein, U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland, in a telephone interview. “For us, our obligation is to raise any available legal defense on behalf of the United States. In this case, we believe that there’s a legal defense that bars this claim against the United States.”
In his Nov. 21 response to the government’s motion, Sheldon refers to a case in which the government was held liable for negligence of an employee, an airman who lived in base housing. The airman’s “failure to control his dog resulted in severe bite injuries to the child next door.”
Base housing and dogsMarine bases regulate pet ownership in base housing. Dogs and cats must be registered with base veterinary or animal control offices. Dogs are prohibited from running free.
But some military bases have gone a step further, prohibiting certain breeds altogether.
Air Force Space Command passed an aggressive-dog policy in 2006 that prohibits pit bull and Rottweiler breeds from living in base housing.
Fort Benning, an Army base in Georgia, has a pet policy restricting animals that weigh more than 100 pounds and specifically prohibits pit bulls, Rottweilers, Doberman Pinschers and chow chows.
McGuire Air Force Base and neighboring Fort Dix in New Jersey also restrict pit bulls, Rottweilers and Dobermans.
Owners of these breeds argue the dogs get a bad rap in the media. With the right training and a good environment, breeds that have aggressive tendencies can be fine pets, animal experts say.
But the numbers are hard to ignore. Animal People, a publication for animal activists, conducted a study of dog attack deaths and maimings in the U.S. and Canada between September 1982 and November 2006. Of the more than 80 breeds included in the study, pit bulls, Rottweilers, Presa Canarios (often called bull mastiffs) and their mixes were responsible for 74 percent of reported attacks analyzed.
As for the Gastons, they’ve had Alex, a Jack Russell terrier, in their lives for almost 11 years.
“I think that’s the one thing that has helped Ashley,” Amy Gaston said. “I don’t think she’s ever going to be the same, but she’s trying very hard. Ashley sticks with frogs now.”