By Mike Dowling, with Damien Lewis. Atria Books. $26.
If you ever doubted the Velcro-like bond between man and dog, this powerful narrative will dispel that quickly and repeatedly.
Richly detailed at home and abroad, it captures the everlasting chain of trust between Dowling and his German shepherd partner, certified in patrol and explosives detection, into the “fires of hell” within Iraq’s infamous “Triangle of Death,” poignantly describing both the taxing psychological and physical demands of war.
The highly focused Sgt. Rex is St. Rex to those Marines known as the Warlords he accompanies into battle for several months. Dowling and Rex are part of the first 12 Military Working Dog teams – the so-called “guinea pigs”—sent to the frontline of a war since Vietnam. Rex ranks as the longest-serving canine in the Marine Corps, having made two later deployments without Dowling, and still serves as a Military Working Dog at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
While the pair undergoes extensive training in the U.S. nothing totally prepares them for the rigors of war, Dowling emphasizes. From sudden firefights to building searches and encounters with wild dogs, the two are totally uncertain what they will find around every corner or along the edge of every dirt road leading into Mahmoudiyah, the capital of the Triangle of Death, or Fallujah, an insurgent stronghold and site of numerous battles.
Dowling paints a broad focus, detailing the demands and versatility required of a Military Working Dog handler and how those are established in training. Good handlers, he explains must be strong-minded and self-starters. “They have to be happy alone with their dog, driving their own schedule day after day. They have to be able to show initiative and not to wait around to be told what to do.” There is no attempt here to sugarcoat anything, and be prepared for plenty of expletives throughout.
“My dog is an extension of me,” he says. “Wherever I go, he goes. As long as he’s with me, he knows I’ll take care of him.” In fact, during one of his first outings while searching an insurgent safe house, Rex’s underside is ripped apart trying to clear a barbed-wire fence. After the mission, Dowling administers immediate treatment, attempting to close the wound and avert an infection.
It costs, according to the author, approximately $50,000 to train a Military Working Dog for a stage like Iraq. Always wanting to be one of the boys, Rex is characterized by Dowling, “Remember that kid at high school who was damn good-looking and confident and funny that he didn’t even have to try? Every school has one. Well, that’s Rex. That’s 100 percent Rex, as we gather with the Marines for this night mission.”
Lauded by their fellow Marines during their six-month deployment, Dowling quickly learns conversely that he and his four-legged partner are at the top of the insurgents’ hit list, along with the Explosive Ordnance Disposal guys.
Throughout this riveting read, Dowling and Rex are the point team on the road, probing for explosives planted by insurgents, some wired to attached cell phones whose number will be dialed by those in hiding nearby upon spotting the advancing Marines. “To him (Rex) this is a game,” says Dowling, “to me it’s a death walk.”
As they eventually prepare to leave Iraq and return home, Dowling acknowledges the two have cheated death continually. “I came to Iraq doubting myself and deeply unsure of taking my dog into the fire of combat. I’m leaving knowing that Rex and I put total trust in each other, and together we achieved the seemingly impossible,” including the dog’s near-death experience from bloat after its return home to California.
Packed with colorful characters and dramatic incidents, “Sergeant Rex” is moving story of true grit cast seamlessly amidst tough realism, rich, insightful detail and mutual respect.