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One of the biggest threats to the safety of American troops during Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003–2011) was improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Made at home with explosive ingredients and spare parts, they soon became the preferred weapon of insurgents who wanted the U.S. military out of Iraq. When buried just below street level, an IED can destroy an armored vehicle and kill the soldiers inside. IEDs were responsible for two out of every three casualties (deaths and injuries) in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Detecting bombs had been a part of the military’s dog training program for decades. In Iraq, dog teams would save lives on a massive scale. One source has estimated that each dog saved from 150 to 1,800 lives during its service during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
This is the story of two of the most successful military dog teams from those years. One team was led by a man, the other by a woman. What they had in common was their dog. His name was Rex.
Destined to become a military working dog, Rex came to the United States as a puppy from one of Germany’s top breeders. After living with a host family, the German shepherd arrived at Lackland Air Force Base on his first birthday. Early in his training Rex learned how to respond to silent hand signals for the basic commands: sit, stay, down, and heel. He practiced chasing and bringing down handlers who played the bad guys in bite-proof padded suits.
Rex followed his nose and located different components of explosives which were hidden around the dog school grounds. His reward for a job well done was always the same: a tennis ball or a Kong, a snowman-shaped dog chew made of hard rubber. To a high-energy dog, gnawing on one of these toys equaled pure bliss.
He passed military school with an impressive evaluation: Rex is an independent dog who will search of his own accord if the handler allows it. He has excellent odor recognition and will track the odor until he pinpoints the source. He will respond regardless of the handler’s position, and has had significant drop-leash and off-leash work.
Then he went to Camp Pendleton in California to await his handler, Corporal Mike Dowling, who was still training at Lackland.
Dowling’s education began with his giving commands to an ammunition bucket filled with concrete. He spoke to the bucket using a high-pitched, energetic voice when he wanted to give praise. He used an authoritative voice when barking out commands, and he switched to a deep, menacing voice when wanting to establish himself as “pack leader.” At first he felt foolish talking to a bucket, but after a while it almost seemed normal. Dowling and the other trainees practiced holding and handling a leash as if a military working dog stood on the other end of it.
Eventually he was paired with Argo, a Belgian Malinois who was also being trained. They practiced searching for explosive ingredients in mock airports, military barracks, vehicles, and buildings scattered about the grounds. Dowling adored Argo, who gave him his first taste of the bond between dog and handler.
After his training was complete, Dowling flew to Camp Pendleton to meet Rex. When he entered the kennel, he approached the shepherd, talking softly. Rex eyed the stranger warily. The dog’s hair stood up on his back — a clear sign of aggression. Dowling continued to move toward Rex, showing no fear. He reached around the dog’s neck to secure a leather collar that was attached to a leash.
When Dowling turned to reach for a choke collar, Rex lunged. He bared his teeth at the soldier, his jaws snapping. Dowling didn’t waste a moment. He tackled the snarling canine and wrestled it to the ground. Then, putting his full weight on the dog to hold him down, Dowling wrapped the leash around Rex’s jaw several times until it was shut tight.
Now came the moment of truth. Dowling put his head to the ground, next to Rex’s face, and shouted in a commanding voice, “Out! Out! Out!” When confronted with an aggressive dog, the handler is to do an “alpha roll” — show the animal who’s boss and establish the human as the leader of the pack. The command “Out! Out! Out!” means only one thing to an American military dog — Stop what you’re doing, right now!
If a handler does not establish his leadership immediately and firmly with an aggressive dog, the two will never work together. Here, however, handler and dog played their parts to perfection. Rex stopped growling and submitted to Dowling as the new alpha dog. From that point on, Rex would not only work for his pack leader, he would do anything to protect him.
Dowling fed the dog by hand and carefully groomed his thick German shepherd fur. From the beginning, he vowed to be the best partner ever to Sergeant Rex. (Dogs receive military ranks as well; by tradition, they are one rank higher than their handlers!)
Some days Dowling ran Rex through the obstacle course to stay fit, ready to handle challenging circumstances. Rex spent other days sniffing for bomb materials hidden by Dowling. When Rex stiffened and raised his tail and head, it was a signal that he was on the trail of something suspicious. Then his nose trailed along the ground, sucking in scents like a vacuum cleaner. Finding his treasure, the dog made one loud snort — then sat, statue-like, until his handler uncovered the material.
Mike Dowling and Rex were one of the first war dog teams deployed to Iraq. They left Camp Pendleton on March 19, 2004, along with other battle-ready dog teams. Twelve dogs and twelve soldiers boarded the cargo plane to settle in for their twenty-six-hour fight. Dowling ordered Rex to “kennel up,” then put his headphones on and sat in front of Rex’s crate. He would keep an eye on his dog, and his dog could keep an eye on him.
No one, it seemed, was expecting a dog to show up. Canine corps had not been used by Americans in combat since the Vietnam War. Some of the Marines that Dowling met told him they had no idea dogs were being used to sniff out bombs.
The commanding officer showed Dowling where Rex was to sleep — in separate quarters from his handler. Dowling explained that he was never apart from his partner, and if they were to be an effective team, it needed to stay that way.
The commanding officer was surprised, but granted permission for Dowling to find new sleeping quarters. He located a small concrete hut beneath the watchtower with no windows, no electricity, and no air conditioning. It was next to a garbage dumpster and a noisy generator. Dowling called it “the bunker.” There was a single tree beside the building. The tree would provide shade for Rex and a place to relieve himself.
Inside the bunker, Rex and Dowling waited for an assignment. And waited. Dowling groomed and played with his partner. They did bomb-detection drills to keep Rex’s sniffer well-tuned. Day after day, however, they were assigned gate duty, and day after day reports filtered in of soldiers and Humvees from the base being blown up by IEDs.
Dowling’s frustration boiled over. He asked permission to speak to the first sergeants in charge. He brought Rex along to plead his case. He discovered that the sergeants had no idea there was a dog team on base. Living in the bunker, away from the main barracks, Dowling and Rex had been invisible.
The sergeants were thrilled to learn about this four-footed IED detector at their disposal. Dog and handler were ordered to start their work that evening, clearing roads for a convoy of Humvees.
The Second Battalion of the Second Marines had been relying on metal detectors to locate IEDs. But those machines couldn’t tell between a metal that was inert and one that could explode. Rex could tell the difference. He and Dowling spent the next few months clearing the area of countless IEDs, making the Triangle of Death safe for travel again.
One day they were en route to Fallujah, a hotbed of insurgent activity, when their convoy of trucks and Humvees came under attack. As machine-gun fire hammered away, Dowling and Rex scrambled out of their vehicle and headed for a protective berm alongside the road. The soldier ordered the dog to lie down flat — and then he lay on top of Rex, protecting the dog with his body. Rex took it all very calmly. His cool demeanor helped Corporal Dowling relax as the firefight raged around them.
On another assignment, they were ordered to join the Second Battalion on a farm outside of Fallujah that was suspected of being an insurgent hideout. American F-15 jets thundered overhead to provide cover for the dog team as they inspected the zone. This would be a long day; Rex’s nose would be working overtime.
Dowling did what he often did at the start of a grueling assignment: he took hold of his dad’s rosary beads and pushed a small carved stone bear deep into his pocket, the one his mom had offered for safety and protection. Then he flashed the red Kong in his pocket. He knew Rex would do anything for a chance to play with his rubber chew toy.
Despite the distraction of jet engines, Rex hit paydirt early and often. He signaled his first hit inside one of the buildings. Dowling summoned other Marines to the spot where his dog waited silently, and soon they had uncovered a large stash of machine guns.
Out in the fields, Rex suddenly stopped sniffing and parked himself on the ground. Marines came to the spot and started digging. Deep in the dirt, insurgents had buried several four-foot-long rocket propelled grenades, or RPGs.
Another field yielded more RPGs along with bomb-making materials. By the end of the day the dog team had cleared the area of hundreds of weapons and explosives.
The base’s second-in-command called Rex a “superstar.” But there would be no superstar treatment for this soldier dog — just more chances to play with the Kong.
After seven months of nonstop duty, Dowling got the call he had been dreading. His father was losing his battle with cancer. The corporal requested leave to go home and be with his family to spend one last Christmas with his dad.
By this time, however, Rex E168 was too valuable to the Marines to wait in a kennel for Dowling’s return. So he was assigned to a new handler, Cpl. Megan Leavey. The two worked more than 100 missions together.
By 2006 dog teams had become so successful at eliminating the IED threat that enemy fighters began targeting the dogs. In September of that year, Leavey and Rex were on a patrol in Ramadi when a blast erupted beneath their feet. It’s believed the device was triggered by an Iraqi insurgent who was watching the dog team from a nearby rooftop. Leavey suffered a traumatic brain injury and was eventually discharged from the Marines, but Rex recovered and was assigned to a new handler and went back to sniffing for bombs.
In 2012 Cpl. Leavey learned that Rex had contracted a disease that had robbed him of much of his olfactory powers. He was back in Camp Pendleton, sitting in a kennel. Leavey petitioned the Marine Corps to adopt her old partner and give him a pleasant retirement at her home in New York. The Marines said no. Under Robby’s Law, the military had the right to refuse an adoption request. Leavey went to the news media.
“Rex is my partner. I love him,” she told MSNBC. “He is ready to be retired.”
Veterans’ groups and New York senator Charles E. Schumer joined the campaign to let Leavey adopt Rex.
More than 21,000 dog lovers signed an online petition. Finally the Marines relented, and this distinguished veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom was let out of his kennel. Sergeant Rex lived out his final months in the care of his handler.
Did you know …
… that the military used to leave working dogs behind instead of returning them to the U.S.?
… that the first therapy dog in history was a Yorkshire terrier who visited wounded soldiers in World War II?
… that thousands of family pets were volunteered for military service in the “Dogs for Defense” program?
Learn the amazing history of how dogs and soldiers changed the military — and made America safer — by reading Nancy Roe Pimm’s new book, Bonded By Battle. It’s suitable for adults as well as younger readers ages 12 and up. Use promo code BONDED7 to get 10% off your copy, signed by the author, with free shipping.