The Dogs in Our Fight: These Ignored American Soldiers Deserve Respect

They risk their lives alongside our service men and women, but America’s military dogs don’t get all they should off the battlefield.

(Photo: Mike Dowling)

Jul 22, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Mike Dowling is author of Sergeant Rex: The Unbreakable Bond Between A Marine and His Military Working Dog, and cofounder of the non profit Veterans in Film & Television. He is a contributor to Take Part Live’s “Return The Service" campaign honoring the military veteran community.

On April 6, 2012, I attended a retirement ceremony for a U.S. Marine.

During his time in service, this Marine completed three combat tours to Iraq, survived dozens of attacks, was credited with saving many lives, and was wounded in action. After recovering from those wounds he served in the Marines for another five years, completing a decade of service before retiring. During a physical evaluation after his service was up, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic disabilities.

Normally this veteran would receive medical care free of charge for such ailments, but the medical care that applies to veterans on discharge did not apply to this Marine, because he was a military working dog. His name was Rex E168 (his tracking number); he was a handsome, 80-pound purebred German shepherd, and he, along with every military working dog, deserved to be medically cared for just as much as any other retired veteran.

Although legislation has been passed to allow defense officials to help soldiers like Rex get better treatment, it hasn’t been implemented, and veterans are heading to Washington this week to advocate for these valiant animals. It helps to know how hard military dogs work to understand why this kind of advocacy matters.

I was paired with Rex to be his handler in the fall of 2002, long before any of his accolades. In the same way I reported to my unit as a young Marine for the first time, Rex came to us with great enthusiasm but a little nervous about what to expect. In the same way I had been through Marine Corps boot camp and acquired a level of basic skills and discipline, Rex had been through military dog boot camp, where he developed a level of basic working dog skills. Proud and stubborn by nature, he did not warm to just anyone. He needed to trust me, and he made it clear that I needed to earn his trust in return. That trust develops into a bond, only built and strengthened through time and consistent training. The bond became so strong that it felt like Rex was an extension of my own body when he was by my side—he would react the way I wanted him to before my telling him.

For more than a year and half we trained, every day, learning how to find explosives and apprehend suspects together. There is no substitute for the time and training a military dog team goes through to prepare for real-life scenarios. By the time Rex and I deployed in March 2004, I felt confident we could perform, but we were untested.

Our first mission was to join a raid in the middle of the night on a known insurgent safe house alongside the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines—a hardened infantry unit. The operation was to take place on the outskirts of the Iraqi town of Mahmudiyah, in the heart of a larger area known as the “Triangle of Death.” While we were moving into position behind the house, a pack of stray dogs in the palm grove we were in picked up Rex’s scent and immediately started to advance on us. Rex, clearly alerted to the threat the dogs posed to him, remained calm and listened to my every command to avoid confrontation, a distraction that could have compromised the mission. It was his ability to keep his composure in that moment that quickly earned him the trust of the Marines we operated with.

Continuing on, the Marines raided the house, and an insurgent escaped through the back window, running down the street. Because he carried no weapon, I released Rex to apprehend him. As Rex sprinted through the night, chasing him down, the insurgent ran under a flickering streetlight, and I noticed it was a kid, probably around 10 years old. I immediately gave Rex the “out” command, which he reluctantly but thankfully obeyed, and he halted his pursuit, letting the child run off into the night. His discipline and obedience were a direct result of the bond we had created over time.

The dogs are there with us on patrols, hunting down insurgents, braving enemy attacks, and enduring unbearable conditions. They have earned every bit of the care that is due to Marines, soldiers, sailors, and airmen after they leave service. Over the years, the military has made great strides in taking care of and finding suitable homes for these dogs to retire to. But there are some gaps in the system.

Last year, a bill called the Canine Members of the Armed Forces Act was passed. The bill allows for the Department of Defense to set up a system in which transportation costs and medical care would be covered for a military dog, at no expense to taxpayers. However, the wording in the legislation does not direct defense officials to create programs; it simply says it “may” create them.

More than a year has passed, and nothing has been done. Instead of the government working with nonprofits and supportive organizations to cover the care for these dogs in retirement, the financial burden still falls on the adoptive owner, usually the handler. If the adoptive owner cannot bear that financial burden, then the medical care cannot be covered, and the dog isn’t properly taken care of. We need to fix these gaps to ensure that these brave canines—after serving to protect and save so many—are taken care of for the rest of their lives.