Here’s the transcript of a recent interview I did with Rebecca Frankel, author of War Dogs: Tales of Canine Heroism, History, and Love.
Tell us about the piece that you wrote for Foreign Policy that inspired this book. What moved you to expand on “Rebecca’s War Dog of the Week” and bring it to the larger public?
In early January of 2010, I came across a photo of a Marine battalion operating out of Helmand Province, Afghanistan. I did a lot of photo editing for the magazine—and still do—and during that time, U.S. troops were still heavily engaged in fighting on the ground. But this photo surprised me—not for its grit or gore, but because the Marines in the image looked happy, content, and very much at home. They were with two bomb-sniffing dogs.
I shared the photo with longtime journalist and former war correspondent Tom Ricks (who is also a great lover of dogs), and he suggested we post a war dog photo every Friday. After digging into the topic, I discovered that it was not only rich with great photos, but also with history, stories, and remarkable examples of how dogs can be tremendous assets in war. So, that’s where Rebecca’s War Dog of the Week came from and how I started working on a military canine beat.
About a year and half later, in the wake of the Osama bin Laden mission, came the news that a dog had been attached to the elite force sent in to take out the world’s most wanted man. So I pulled together a collection of some of the best Military Working Dog (MWD) images I could find and wrote up captions to explain why they’d have brought an MWD on this mission. The photo essay, War Dog, went viral.
And so I really was very fortunate—though I’d had the idea for the book, the photo essay brought the opportunity to write it directly to me.
Can you pick a relationship between one of the dogs and handlers profiled in the book that inspires you the most?
That’s tough; they all inspire me. While the MWD community is relatively small compared to how large the U.S. military actually is, it is a uniquely devoted one. Handlers are very passionate about their work, and very committed to their job and their dogs. But the stories that moved me the most were the ones where the dogs, in some fit of fighting or truly dangerous encounter would, in pure reaction, put themselves in harm’s way to protect their handlers. And the amazing thing was, it was not an anomaly; war after war, even with hundreds of years in between, dogs were moved to engage a threat to keep their handlers safe.
During the Vietnam War, a dog named Nemo crawled on top of his handler to shield him while they were under attack—taking a bullet and losing an eye in the process. In Afghanistan, a young Marine named Colton Rusk was shot by a Taliban sniper and his dog, Eli, a Labrador not generally known for being ferocious, did the same thing: He climbed on top of his fallen handler to protect him, snapping at anyone who tried to help him. It would be impossible not to be moved by these stories, and there are so many of them.
What’s been the most surprising thing you’ve learned and experienced while working directly with these war dogs?
While it shouldn’t have been surprising, I think I was most affected by learning just how dangerous it is for these dog teams who are searching out in front of convoys and foot patrols, looking for explosives. Most of us live our lives so very far away from these wars and the people who are fighting them, so it’s difficult to grasp the reality of what they do and what it must feel like.
During my reporting, I spent two weeks at a pre-deployment course run by the Marine Corps out of Yuma Proving Ground (YPG) in Arizona. I watched these dog teams run through tactical training (during the day and at night) and even the best dog teams didn’t find every training aid. I oftentimes would go with the instructors before the drills took place to watch how and where they would bury the aids in the sand. And even though it was only practice, I would stand watching, holding my breath, silently praying that they would detect every bomb.
You are a passionate advocate for maintaining the war dog force in the military—what do you feel dogs bring to the table that humans simply cannot?
That would make for a rather long list; a dog’s senses are far superior to that of a human, as is their sense of smell, hearing, and eyesight (though they don’t rely on it in the same way we do). Even their ability to detect unhappiness or infer danger works on a level above that of humans. But for dog lovers, this isn’t revelatory. If you know dogs or love dogs, then you already understand this. I think it’s important for people to understand that dogs don’t just do this work better than humans, they do it better than technology—even the most advanced devices developed in the last decade to detect explosives don’t hold a candle to a dog team.
Where are they now? Tell us about some of the retired military dogs you’ve followed and what they are up to today. What can the average civilian do to help support these retired canine vets?
One of the wonderful things about reporting on a subject for so many years and getting to know a community inside and out is seeing these relationships between handlers and their dogs come full circle. At least three dogs I wrote about who have since retired from their military service have gone on to live at home with their handlers, and hopefully that list will only get longer.
Marine IDD Chaney, a big, mellow black Lab, now lives with his handler, Matt Hatala (Chaney recently won the ASPCA’s Hero Dog award this year in its military dog category). Robbie, a former Marine combat tracker dog, is living with Sgt. Charlie Hardesty and his family in California. And Anax, who was shot and lost his hind leg during an ambush in Afghanistan, is living in Texas with his former handler, Army Specialist Marc Whittaker. (I write about that harrowing day in the book.) I’ve had handlers say that it makes them feel more at home, more whole, to have their dogs living with them.
There are lots of ways that we civilians can help support these dogs—ones on active duty, still deploying, and those who have retired. If someone was interested in contributing a donation, I would point them to the U.S. War Dogs Association, run by veteran dog handler Ron Aiello, who served in Vietnam with his scout dog Stormy. (Theirs is a wonderful story, and I write about their time together in the Vietnam War in the book as well.) Aiello has been sending out care packages to deployed handlers and their dogs for the last 10 years. He’s also recently launched a new program that assists with the cost of prescriptions for retired MWDs.
There’s a lot of misinformation going around, especially recently, about how military dogs are mistreated and are being left behind in Afghanistan as we draw down our troops, and it’s simply not true. It does a huge disservice to the dogs and their handlers to have these unsubstantiated stories floating around on social media, and it would be wonderful to see them vanish.