The Best Defense

Rebecca's War Dog of the Week: Two years later, the war-dog photo seen 'round the world

By Rebecca Frankel

Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent 

While watching the April 21st 60 Minutes segment on Special Ops dogs, I wasn't at all surprised to see that they ran the above photo of a U.S. Army handler with the 10th Special Forces Group and his MWD jumping off the ramp of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter into the Gulf of Mexico on March 1, 2011.

It's now been two years since we ran that photo as the opener to my FP photo essay "War Dog," after which the piece and the image went viral. At the time, people incorrectly assumed that I had taken the photo. I hadn't, of course. But the man who did was Tech. Sgt. Manuel J. Martinez, a career military photographer with the Air Force. I spoke with Martinez this week to find out what was going on behind the lens that day and to get the story of what's likely the most widely recognizable -- and most often used -- war-dog image of modern day.

As a combat photographer with flying status, Martinez, originally from a small town in New Mexico, has had a wild range of assignments -- from covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to riding along on search and rescue missions in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It was during the Katrina mission that Martinez shot a photo of a little boy being hoisted in the arms of Tech. Sgt. Lem Torres up into a helicopter from the roof of his flooded home. For Martinez, the experience was life altering. It was, he said, the first photo he took that really mattered.

He had no idea that some six years later, while cramped in the back of a CH-47 Chinook watching Special Ops teams run through routine water-training exercises, he would be taking what would become his most famous photo. They loaded the helicopter again and again, picking up SOC teams and dropping them the roughly seven feet from the helicopter into the water. Even if it was something of a rote mission, the guys, Martinez remembers, were having fun. "Everybody was all excited, all hyped. It was the Gulf of Mexico...it was beautiful."

But when Martinez saw on one of their pick-ups that they were loading a dog into the helicopter, he thought, "Holy crap. I have to get ready for it."

The dog team was the last of the teams to take their jump that day. And when it was their turn to go, the other men, already in the water, were cheering them on -- men who are also captured in this image. As many times as I've looked at this photo, it was something I'd never noticed before. But Martinez pointed them out to me, directing my eyes over the phone. If you look at the dog's muzzle, you can see them -- small and faint in a thin, vertical line, like gray shadows in the pink water. You can even see that the man who appears closest in the frame has his arm raised in triumphant encouragement.

In the end, Martinez says, the moment was fleeting. The dog team jumped out of sight and the helicopter returned to base.

Perhaps the most incredible thing that Martinez revealed during our conversation was the answer to a question I've had since the very first time I saw this photo, and one I've heard debated ever since. Did this dog jump willingly or did he have a little...help?

According to Martinez, the dog "did hop out" on his own steam.

From his vantage point in the Chinook, Martinez could see that the handler had his hand on the dog's harness, coaxing the dog, who hesitated, even if only slightly, at the edge of the ramp. "Ultimately," Martinez said, "it was the dog's effort."

When handler and dog jumped down into the water, they jumped together.

Rebecca Frankel is away from her FP desk, working on a book about dogs and war.

Tech. Sgt. Manuel J. Martinez, U.S. Air Force. (Released)

The Best Defense

Responding to the admirals: A friend poses some questions about carriers

The other day FP carried a standard carriers-are-great piece by a trio of admirals. A friend of mine, appalled at what he regarded as the ostrich-like views of the high-ranking authors, sent a corrective note to me:

Key questions to be considered would be:

  • To what degree will China be able to impede our ability to freely use carriers in the Pacific in the future?
  • How willing would U.S. political leadership be to commit carriers in a high-threat environment where China would view a negative outcome for them as a threat to the survival of the Party (recognizing that in that culture every defeat, even small ones, are a threat to the survival of the Party)?
  • Would POTUS commit a carrier if there was a 10 percent chance it would be hit?
  • How about 20 percent, or 30 percent?
  • How many of the vertical launch tubes on the destroyers and cruisers are committed to defending the carrier vs. carrying Tomahawks to carry out power-projection missions? 
  • When does the Navy come in a la Bay of Pigs and say that it can only operate carriers forward to accomplish the mission if it is allowed to hit targets on the mainland, placing CONUS at risk to reprisal, and how does the president respond?
  • When does the POTUS realize that for years we have built platforms that we cannot afford to lose, either in monetary cost or the cost of lives? That is the key question. Rule number three of war is never build a weapon that you cannot afford to lose or have defeated. We seem to proceed on an assumption that no one will ever attack our carriers. I think the Chinese will see themselves as being in a position that they cannot afford NOT to attack our carriers.
  • How does this all affect our position vis a vis Japan, the Philippines, Australia, and India? All of those relationships will be at risk if we don't have an alternative.

Final thought: The Navy has already accepted that the fleet is going to shrink to 270 ships, and I am here to tell you that it will go smaller than that, probably 230 before this is all done. This is largely because all of those ships that were built by Reagan are all retiring at the same time and we are not building replacements at the same rate right now. That will be the price of maintaining 10-11 supercarriers at $12-13 billion with an annual shipbuilding budget of $15 billion. The price will decrease overall naval presence, and raise questions as to the U.S. commitment to local security concerns.

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