“They aren’t pets. They aren’t even dogs anymore. They’re warriors,” Gunny Martin (Common) warns Megan (Kate Mara) in Megan Leavey.
I’d anticipated this movie for months, and attended the first showing at Destin Commons the day it was released to almost universal acclaim. The movie depicts the bond created between a Marine and her war dog, Rex, as they scour dry, dusty roads and buildings searching for IEDs.
War dogs have a long and storied history with the U.S. military, which has used them to deliver supplies and messages to troops, locate wounded soldiers and detect bombs since World War I. Rex is the embodiment of their fierce courage and loyalty to their handlers—it’s especially evident in the scene where he jumps out of a moving vehicle to come to Leavey’s aid after a bomb literally blows her out and onto the roadside.
Leavey was finally able to adopt Rex in 2012, and he lived for eight more months enjoying the comforts of civilian life before passing away in December of that year. But had she not been so persistent—gathering signatures and enlisting the help of New York Senator Chuck Schumer—Rex would have been euthanized.
That was the fate of all war dogs upon their retirement until just about 20 years ago. In late 2000, President Bill Clinton signed a bill that allows the dogs to be adopted by law-enforcement agencies, military handlers and the public.
That’s a big improvement from the Vietnam era. When U.S. troops began pulling out, the four-legged heroes who had served so faithfully by their sides were euthanized, abandoned or turned over to the South Vietnamese army (which largely viewed dogs as a food source).
Military officials balked at the costs of flying them home, then housing and caring for them. But more importantly, none of the dogs were considered adoptable because they were seen as too aggressive and not able to be deprogrammed out of their wartime mentality. Ron Aiello, a Vietnam veteran and president of the New Jersey-based U.S. War Dogs Association, estimates that only 200 of the roughly 5,000 war dogs who served there returned home.
I was also gratified to hear Rex referred to throughout the movie as “Sergeant Rex,” a step up from his corporal counterpart.
Europe has centuries of experience breeding these types of dogs, so most U.S. war dogs are acquired from there, then trained at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. By their first deployment, the Pentagon has invested tens of thousands of dollars into each canine (although to this day, military working dogs are still considered “obsolete equipment” once they retire).
Lackland officials deny the dogs are given ranks. But our German shepherd was trained by a former handler (who also deployed to Iraq with his “sniffer”), and he told me war dogs are always given higher ranks than their handlers. Maybe that’s unofficial, but either way, it’s designed to head off any instances of abuse.
After all, as Lisa Rogak wrote in her 2011 book, The Dogs of War: The Courage, Love and Loyalty of Military Working Dogs: “If a human soldier were to physically or mentally abuse a superior in some fashion, it would be grounds for a court-martial.”
“It’s like hitting a higher rank, and that’s not allowed,” a handler explains.
So to General Rex and Corporal Leavey, thank you for your service and for helping to save countless lives. And a special thanks to Corporal Leavey for your dogged efforts to adopt your fellow warrior, and allowing him to live out his final months in the relative comforts of the civilian world.
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