Rex served three deployments as a military working dog in Iraq for the US Marines. He was even the subject of a book written by his first handler in Iraq, Mike Dowling.
Just before Christmas, Rex died at the age of 11. He had already retired from active duty after being wounded during his last deployment. Rex had been adopted by his second handler, Megan Leavey.
Anchor Marco Werman finds out more about Rex’s life, and about the lives of other military working dogs (or WMDs, as they’re known) from Mike Dowling.
Dowling, and Rex, are also featured in a documentary called Always Faithful.
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Marco Werman: And here is another dog story. This one is about Rex – one of the military working dogs to be deployed to Iraq. Just before Christmas, Rex died at the age of 11. He had already retired from active service. Rex’s handler during his time in Iraq was Mike Dowling. Dowling wrote about his charge in the book “Sergeant Rex: The Unbreakable Bond between a Marine and His Dog.” Mike, in the short obituary you wrote for Rex “Once a Marine, Always a Marineâ€¦ Semper Fiâ€, you explained how you first met Rex and the bond that you two developed, talk about that.
Mike Dowling: Sure. I met Rex in the fall of 2002. I was actually one of two handlers that took him to Iraq (I was the first one) and he made you earn his respect. He is a very proud dog. He’s a very, very good dog and beautiful dog but he’s trained to attack and he made you earn his respect and that’s exactly what I had to do. I had to go in and build a rapport for him to trust me which he ended up doing. And then, from that point on, we started training and we were with each other, literally, every single day. Even on our off days, I was there at some point trying to do some kind of obedience or something with him just to build that bond every single day.
Werman: Now, you said he was trained to attack?
Dowling: Yeah, he was a dual certified dog. He was trained to protect and also attack suspects if you needed to, but he was also trained in detection – for finding explosives and weapons, things like that.
Werman: So detection, attacking as needed. What kinds of other tasks are dogs like Rex performing for the Marines and other troops in places like Iraq?
Dowling: The majority of the work that the military dogs are needed for is really just detection work…explosive detection work. We don’t really need the patrol work too much. It’s more of a psychological deterrent.
Werman: I was gonna ask you what was the attitude of Iraqis (having that Rex was a German Shepherd) toward this particular dog?
Dowling: You know, they have dogs but they don’t domesticate them and so, they essentially just have stray dogs all over the country everywhere, and they are diseased. So, their outlook on the dog isn’t that good at all. But then, you have these amazing, gorgeous, beautiful working dogs that the Military brings over and it’s actually a great tool for them to learn because nowadays the Iraqi police force have been trained to work with working dogs whereas traditionally they weren’t before. So, it was a great learning tool for them.
Werman: Well, a little aside here Mike. I noticed that, curiously, the acronym of military working dogs is MWD an anagram of WMD. There were no WMDs in Iraq but there were plenty of MWDs. How many were there at the peak of the occupation?
Dowling: At the peak, I honestly don’t know. I would probably have to say a few hundreds, at least. When I went out there, I was one of twelve Marine Corp dog teams but that number quickly grew. It’s funny that you mentioned that acronym – that MWD and WMD; we like to refer to the working dogs as ‘weapons of mass detection’ because they detect to well.
Werman: Right. How long do these animals tend to stay in service?
Dowling: An average working dog in the military will probably serve anywhere from 6 to 8 years which is just incredible.
Werman: What happened to Rex after the military?
Dowling: Rex did three deployments and he was actually wounded on his third deployment so he didn’t deploy again, but he was still very useful back in the States. Then he retired in April of 2012 and he got adopted by the other handler that took him to Iraq. He got to enjoy retirement for a good several months until he passed away.
Werman: Mike, we often talk about the human side of dogs and how we connect with them emotionally. Do dogs have post-traumatic stress disorder when they’ve been in theaters of war?
Dowling: Yes and, actually, Rex had PTSD. Dogs are emotional creatures just like human beings are and so combat stress will affect them the same way it affects…maybe not the same way but it certainly affects them just like it affects human beings. It is a very real issue (the PTSD within canines). In fact, it is so real that there is an entire military working dog hospital at Lackland Air Force Base which is where the military dog program is located where they have a program at the hospital specifically set up for therapy for dogs with PTSD.
Werman: Mike, I can hear the way you’re talking about Rex just the bond that the two of you had. Obviously, handlers like you come to love their dogs and that bond develops but what about the rest of the unit? Is there kind of a quality like a fire-house dog where everybody is in love with the dog?
Dowling: That’s absolutely correct. So many Marines will come up, when I was out there, to say hi to me and Rex and Rex would get all the attention which…that’s okay because he’s a piece of home that you bring with you out there and he reminds you of your own dog back home. They are just great therapy tools. Whether or not we go on missions, just to have them around is a great benefit to everyone out there.
Werman: I have to ask this. What did Rex eat and was he as grossed out by the MREs as a lot of Marines are?
Dowling: Oh, Rex would eat anything [laughs]. He would actually steal my food. I would get care packages in the mail from family and friends and people that support and, actually, most of the stuff in the mail was for Rex instead of me [laughs]. We have a very strict diet regimen for all of our military dogs that we abide to but, every once in a while, we’d sneak some beef jerky in there or something.
Werman: Nice. Mike Dowling, the author of “Sergeant Rex” (Rex being the military working dog that Dowling handled). Rex died recently at the age of 11. Mike, thank you.
Dowling: Thanks Marco. I appreciate it.
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