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Warrior dog exhibit opens at Ford Museum this month

The traveling exhibit, “Wounded Warrior Dogs Project & K9 War Stories" went on display on Feb. 15, and will be at the Ford Museum through May 10.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich — An exhibit highlighting the history of warrior dogs and the stories they hold has arrived at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum last week. 

The traveling exhibit, “Wounded Warrior Dogs Project & K9 War Stories" went on display on Feb. 15, and will be at the Ford Museum through May 10.

Wounded Warrior Dogs Project & K9 War Stories is comprised of two installations featuring seven wounded warrior dogs and four canine war dogs. The new portion of the exhibit, K9 War Stories, tells the true stories of courage and sacrifice of actual K9 teams during the Global War on Terror. 

“Wounded Warrior Dogs Project & K9 War Stories” was designed by Ohio master craftsman James Mellick to bring attention to the service and heroism of military working dogs, and also symbolize the courageous sacrifices and wounds their human companions suffered during battle and raise awareness about their needs.

“What I think is so poetic and so beautiful is this bond or melding that takes place between the handler and the dog of complete dependence, unconditional love, and the will to survive in the most dire of situations among the two of them,” said Mellick. “And the narrative way that I work of storytelling was perfect for this group, so I had to tell the story of the dogs and their handlers.”

Mellick began wood carving while working as a teacher in New Hampshire in 1976. After retiring in 2014, he was inspired by news stories about soldiers coming home to the Veterans Administration with horrific injuries. It was then that Mellick received a new calling for his carving craft and began creating the Wounded Warriors Dog Project.

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Mellick, who spent 14 months creating Wounded Warrior Dogs, spends an average of 160 hours on each dog sculpture. He begins each project with a small sketch that he puts on his computer and enlarges, then cuts the drawing into patterns that he traces on blocks of wood. Mellick carves away the corners and starts shaping the sculpture, carving the heads, legs and tails separately before fastening them together at the end.

After winning the People’s Choice Award at the Ohio State Fair in 2015, Mellick expanded his Wounded Warrior Dogs to seven dogs and started touring the exhibit.

In 2016, Mellick’s project won the ArtPrize public vote and the $200,000 grand prize. The entry also earned the most votes in its category, 3D. Additionally, Mellick received a Commendation of Service from the Ohio state senate in the same year. Since then, the exhibit has been featured at the Ohio Craft Museum, Southern Ohio Museum, Airborne and Special Operations Museum, National Museum of the Marine Corps and National Museum of the United States Air Force. It has also been featured in Ohio Magazine and The Bark.

Although Mellick did not serve in the military, he views his sculptures, which tell stories of courage, honor, faithfulness and sacrifice, as his payback to those who have served and continue serving today. Mellick has since become involved in the military dog community, serving as an honorary member of the Vietnam Dog Handlers Association.

“I’ve had young veterans put their arms around me sobbing, crying and thanking me for doing this,” Mellick said.

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