Rebecca’s War Dog of the Week: Two years later, the war-dog photo seen ’round the world

Rebecca’s War Dog of the Week: Two years later, the war-dog photo seen ’round the world

By Rebecca Frankel

Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent 

While watching the April 21st 60 Minutes segment on Special Ops dogs, I wasn’t at all surprised to see that they ran the above photo of a U.S. Army handler with the 10th Special Forces Group and his MWD jumping off the ramp of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter into the Gulf of Mexico on March 1, 2011.

It’s now been two years since we ran that photo as the opener to my FP photo essay "War Dog," after which the piece and the image went viral. At the time, people incorrectly assumed that I had taken the photo. I hadn’t, of course. But the man who did was Tech. Sgt. Manuel J. Martinez, a career military photographer with the Air Force. I spoke with Martinez this week to find out what was going on behind the lens that day and to get the story of what’s likely the most widely recognizable — and most often used — war-dog image of modern day.

As a combat photographer with flying status, Martinez, originally from a small town in New Mexico, has had a wild range of assignments — from covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to riding along on search and rescue missions in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It was during the Katrina mission that Martinez shot a photo of a little boy being hoisted in the arms of Tech. Sgt. Lem Torres up into a helicopter from the roof of his flooded home. For Martinez, the experience was life altering. It was, he said, the first photo he took that really mattered.

He had no idea that some six years later, while cramped in the back of a CH-47 Chinook watching Special Ops teams run through routine water-training exercises, he would be taking what would become his most famous photo. They loaded the helicopter again and again, picking up SOC teams and dropping them the roughly seven feet from the helicopter into the water. Even if it was something of a rote mission, the guys, Martinez remembers, were having fun. "Everybody was all excited, all hyped. It was the Gulf of Mexico…it was beautiful."

But when Martinez saw on one of their pick-ups that they were loading a dog into the helicopter, he thought, "Holy crap. I have to get ready for it."

The dog team was the last of the teams to take their jump that day. And when it was their turn to go, the other men, already in the water, were cheering them on — men who are also captured in this image. As many times as I’ve looked at this photo, it was something I’d never noticed before. But Martinez pointed them out to me, directing my eyes over the phone. If you look at the dog’s muzzle, you can see them — small and faint in a thin, vertical line, like gray shadows in the pink water. You can even see that the man who appears closest in the frame has his arm raised in triumphant encouragement.

In the end, Martinez says, the moment was fleeting. The dog team jumped out of sight and the helicopter returned to base.

Perhaps the most incredible thing that Martinez revealed during our conversation was the answer to a question I’ve had since the very first time I saw this photo, and one I’ve heard debated ever since. Did this dog jump willingly or did he have a little…help?

According to Martinez, the dog "did hop out" on his own steam.

From his vantage point in the Chinook, Martinez could see that the handler had his hand on the dog’s harness, coaxing the dog, who hesitated, even if only slightly, at the edge of the ramp. "Ultimately," Martinez said, "it was the dog’s effort."

When handler and dog jumped down into the water, they jumped together.

Rebecca Frankel is away from her FP desk, working on a book about dogs and war.