By Rebecca Frankel
Chief Canine Correspondent
The first time I spoke to former Marine dog handler Mike Dowling I asked him about his working dog, Rex. He chuckled and declined; explaining the brief time we had on the phone that day just wasn't enough to do Rex justice.
Next week the seasoned and still-working German Shepherd will officially be given his due tribute in Sergeant Rex: The Unbreakable Bond Between a Marine and His Working Dog. The forthcoming book, written by Dowling, chronicles the team's tour in Iraq in 2004, most of which they spent in Mahmoudiyah, better known as the Triangle of Death.
Dowling was one of the first of the initial 12 Marine handlers sent with their dogs to Iraq in 2004. Prior to their deployment there hadn't been a U.S. dog team on the front lines in a combat zone since Vietnam. They were, as Dowling tells me, the guinea pigs. Neither Dowling nor Rex had seen combat before. "I didn't know how unprepared I was until I got there."
While Dowling was confident in his and Rex's strong working dynamic he had doubts about how quickly they would adapt to the unforgiving working conditions and the chaotic violence churning around them. "I didn't know how effective we would be in a combat environment, specifically in an environment with 125 degree heat, with strays and shit and trash everywhere. I didn't know what to expect so I didn't know if I was prepared or not."
Prepared or not, the pair was thrust into the thick of it almost immediately. Dowling and Rex's first mission - which makes for one of the most gripping scenes in the book -- was a veritable gauntlet through hell, replete with a pack of wild dogs, razor-edged barbed wire (that would slice through Rex's underbelly), and a Shawshankian ditch of human waste.
Despite the unknowns of IED detection and patrol work in Iraq and the aversion Rex had shown to firefights in training, that night was a success. "Rex knew that it was training when it was training," Dowling told me. "But when we were in combat, he knew we were in combat because he could read it in my eyes and was very obedient. It gave me this incredible sense of calm and confidence in us as a dog team to preform well."
In Sergeant Rex, Dowling (along with coauthor Damien Lewis) make for an able storyteller who, despite his plain love and affection for Rex, reminds readers again and again that Rex is a working dog, and ultimately a fellow Marine. A sentiment Rex, who Dowling describes as an "aggressive," "independent" even "macho" dog, liked to reinforce.
"I really felt that Rex felt that he was one of us. He thought he was a Marine," Dowling laughs. "He saw the bond between all of us and he just gravitated toward that. He had never met those Marines [on our patrol] ever, but he was protecting us. That was just his natural instinct."
Dowling left the Marines last year and now works with a number of non-profits dedicated to helping disabled veterans. Rex is still working as a patrol dog over at Camp Pendleton in California, but his days of overseas deployment are behind him. Dowling gets out to visit him from time to time -- Rex made an appearance at a book signing on base with his former handler last weekend -- he's careful not to step on the bond Rex has formed with his current handler.
When it came to working on the book, Dowling says he was initially reluctant to put so much of his own life on display and that it took convincing. Lewis was able to sway him by boiling down the motivation to one simple focus -- Rex.
"Lewis asked me, ‘How much do you love Rex?' I was like, are you kidding me I love him to death. ‘Do you think he's worthy of a story your kids can hear?' Yeah, I guess he is. ‘When are you gonna get another chance to do it?' I was like, damn, I guess you're right."
The following is a brief excerpt from Sergeant Rex:
The crack of boots splintering wood cuts the night, followed by sharp screams and cries. Rex stiffens for an instant, then glances up at me. He gives me this look, a half-worried gaze: What the hell's that? And what do we do now, partner?
Rex is three years old, and during the last year-and-a-half we've spent barely a day apart. He has become my life. He's at the peak of his fitness, and he'll never be sharper or quicker than he is now. I hope that as long as I stay calm and collected, my dog will too.
The noise is deafening as the first of the insurgents are bundled out of the door, hands over their heads. I stroke Rex and talk to him, cooing and soothing him softly: "It's okay, boy, it's okay ..."
I spot a flash of movement out of the corner of my eye. A lone figure sprints from a side door to our left. I can't see a weapon, but I know that Rex has spotted him the same instant that I have. ...
As one we turn our heads very sharply to the left. But it seems to take an age to do so. In the adrenaline rush of combat I'm hypersensitive to everything around me. Each second seems magnified one hundred fold, each movement playing out in ultra slow motion.
I grab Rex's thick collar and mouth into his ear: "Watch him! Watch him! Watch him!" ...
Just as soon as he's heard the command watch him, it's like a light's been switched on. A low growl echoes in the depths of Rex's throat, and he's up on all fours, alert, tense and ears down ready to go. He's straining at the leash. As for me, my adrenaline's pumping bucket-loads, for I'm about to release my dog.
The figure reaches the open street. I release both leash and collar: "Get him!"
Rex powers away like a bullet from a gun. His bunched muscles are firing him forwards, his legs flashing through the thin grass, his leash trailing like a whip behind him.
Rex is fast. He's closing on the target, sprinting through the bush to get to the open road. But as the figure passes under a flickering street lamp I see that it's a kid. No way can I live with myself if I set my dog on an innocent kid. No way. I don't want that playing on my mind, and especially as this is the first time that I've ever sent Rex after a live human being for real.
Above the deafening noise from the target building I start screaming at the top of my lungs: "OUT! OUT! OUT!"
Rex slows, to show me he's heard me, but he keeps moving forwards. He's been shown the target and he wants to do his stuff now. It's a battle of wills, and Rex is as stubborn as they come.
"REX -- OUT!" I yell again. He turns to look at me, glances back at the running figure, then back to me again: oh come on, daddy, let me get him.
I respond by giving him the ‘sit' command, and reluctantly he lowers his rump onto the dirt. I follow this with the ‘heel' command, and slowly Rex returns to my side. He's got his head held low, eyes down: oh man ... did you have to? I grab Rex's collar and praise him for being such a good boy.
I see the kid running off down the street, and he seems oblivious to the fact that Rex was after him. If I'd used my rifle and taken the shot the kid would now be dead. If you fire and realize it's the wrong target, it's too late by then. A dog is like a bullet you can call back again.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.