By Rebecca Frankel
Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent
Tacked up against a chain-link wall inside FOB Barioli in Helmand Province Afghanistan, is a large plywood sign. Its white paint is buckled and peeling, but you can't miss the message: "We Find What You Fear." Above that large lettering is a monstrous black paw, spray-painted across its middle in scarlet red: "K-9."
FOB Barioli is just one of the many intense backdrops of Glory Hounds, a new feature documentary that follows four U.S. Military Working Dog teams during their combat tours in Afghanistan. Glory Hounds, which premieres tonight at 8pm EST on Animal Planet, offers an in-depth and poignant look at a dog's role in modern war.
The film revolves around the mostly discreet and separate narratives of each handler and his dog -- Lance Corporal Kent Ferrell and Zora, Corporal Drew Nyman and Emily, Staff Sergeant Len Anderson and Azza, and Lance Corporal Durward Shaw and Falko. After introducing each dog team, the film bounces back and forth between their in-country experiences. The majority of these narratives unravel through the action of the moment -- out on patrols, during traffic searches, and while they kick back on base. (Full disclosure, I've written about some of the handlers and dogs featured in this film in my forthcoming book.)
Very little time is wasted in Glory Hounds setting up the premise of military dogs, their history in combat, or their introductory training. Instead John Dorsey and Andrew Stephan, the documentary's creators and directors, wisely focused their film, and subsequently their cameras, on the relationship between the handler and his dog and the dangerous job they do together.
Dorsey and Stephan kept the filmmaking formula pretty simple. As Dorsey explained during an interview earlier this week, "We [and our crew] just tried our best to have our cameras pointed in the right direction when these guys do the heroic stuff they do every day. We tried our best to do justice to the guys that were cool enough to let us ride shotgun."
Glory Hounds's crew worked out of Afghanistan for roughly 10 weeks time during the summer of 2012, embedding with these four dog teams and their units, following them from Camp Leatherneck to Kandahar Air Field to smaller outposts like Barioli. This transpired during the height of the fighting season, when these areas are at their most dangerous and the summer heat is at its hottest.
Through a mix of footage taken from helmet-mounted cameras worn by the handlers and from their embedded crew members (one soundman and one cameraman went out with every patrol), Glory Hounds reveals many rarely, if ever, captured moments of dog teams hunting IEDs outside the wire. The result is a riveting mix of high-pressure scenes -- from heavy firefights to finding a locked box possibly full of explosives, possibly triggered to blow. And Glory Hounds doesn't shy away from the gruesome realities of war -- the IED explosions or the resulting injuries -- leaving them on (almost) full display. And in that way, the two-hour film leans more Restrepo-esque than viewers might expect from an Animal Planet feature. Kudos to Dorsey and Stephan, Animal Planet, and the military for not scrubbing out the grit. The film is still plenty heartwarming; its more intense war scenes are rounded out by the quieter, softer moments captured in the film, but steers clear from being too cloying. The audience watches these young men call home to speak to their families or putting together a makeshift cake from MRE packs for a fellow handler's 21st birthday.
While Glory Hounds offers an engaging emotional balance, at times its storytelling is uneven. Marine handler Kent Ferrell's introduction includes the story of his childhood dog, flashing through old photos, giving the audience a sense of the kid behind the handler. But of the four, he's the only one. In another instance, when one handler's dog is badly shaken after a particularly rough patrol, the issue of canine PTSD gets a nod but not much else. And that team's story ends on a slightly unfinished or muffled-feeling note.
One might even argue that it is to Dorsey and Stephan's credit that they did not force all four narratives to fit one particular mold, allowing the on-the-ground experience to dictate the larger story. As the filmmakers will tell you, once their crew was in Afghanistan they soon realized, as Stephan explained, "no matter how much planning, no matter how much prep, it's not going to roll out the way you thought it would." They were at the mercy of the unpredictable nature of a combat zone. "The ground was always shifting beneath our feet," Dorsey said. "Just like it is for dog handlers out there on a daily basis."
But any quibbles are minor and they do little to disrupt all that Glory Hounds does so well. Much of the real brilliance of Glory Hounds comes in the film's unexpected moments -- both for its viewer, its creators, and especially its crew. For me, it was the secondary, supporting story lines like that of their cameraman, Craig Constant, which I found especially moving.
As a former Marine, Constant, who saw combat during the first Gulf War, was perhaps uniquely prepared for what happened to handler Len Anderson during a patrol into a Taliban stronghold. When an IED blast literally blew apart Anderson from his dog, Azza, Constant put down his camera to administer first aid. Remarkably much of the gripping, heart-stopping scene was still captured on film and that included Azza's reaction -- she did not run but stayed alert and concerned, her attention always on Anderson. Even in the chaos and terror, her devotion did not go unnoticed. In the film Constant describes it as "probably the most amazing thing I've seen between an animal and a man."
Dorsey and Stephan are adamant that their driving motivation was to show what these dogs do and to get their audience -- who likely has little personal connection to the war in Afghanistan and little sense of what these dog teams do on a day-to-day basis while working outside the wire -- as close to the danger as possible. No pomp, no frills, just handlers and their dogs in a combat zone. In Dorsey's words, "We just tried to get out of the way, and let the subject matter stand up for itself."
Glory Hounds airs tonight and is scheduled to run at least two other times on Animal Planet, so check your listings. Beyond that, the directors say that as of now there aren't any plans for screenings elsewhere. Let's hope that changes. But in the meantime, skip tonight's episode of The Office and set your DVRs; Glory Hounds is not to be missed.
Rebecca Frankel's book about military working dogs will be published by Atria Books in August 2013.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.