- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
Former Marine dog handler Mike Dowling was one of the very first MWD handlers to be sent into Iraq in 2004. We’ve long been following tales of Mike’s deployment with his dog Rex here on WDotW. On Oct. 28, Mike attended — along with hundreds of others — the Military Working Dog Teams National Monument dedication ceremony at Lackland Air Force Base.
Military Working Dog Teams: A Legacy of Saving & Protecting Lives
By Mike Dowling
Serving as a Marine Corps dog handler with my military working dog, Rex E168 (Rex’s serial number), was the greatest experience I had in my life.
But before becoming a dog handler I, regrettably, had very little knowledge of the history and proud legacy built by the blood, sweat, and tears of the war dog teams that served in previous conflicts, including WWII, Korea, and the Vietnam War. Do a little research and you will quickly find the legacy of war dog teams is that of triumph and tragedy, but overall incredible success — success at saving lives, thanks to the bravery and heroics of those dedicated dog teams. I feel all dog teams that have served in Iraq and Afghanistan — as well as those dog teams continuing to serve today — have proudly carried on that legacy of success with new chapters of triumph and tragedy.
That proud legacy is now immortalized thanks to the Military Working Dog Teams National Monument that was dedicated on Oct. 28. The monument is the culmination of over eight years of advocacy by Vietnam dog handler John Burnam and his dedicated team of former dog handlers. The occasion was long overdue, and yet it’s another example of how passionate and dedicated handlers are in getting these “unsung heroes” the recognition, honor, and respect they deserve. Now that the monument has been dedicated they are officially no longer unsung heroes — they are just heroes.
I was beyond humbled to have been asked to speak during the dedication ceremony. I couldn’t help but feel emotional as I spoke about Rex and my friend Sgt. Adam Cann, a dog handler killed in action. The emotions did not end there, however, as I was honored to meet the parents of Cpl. Dustin Lee and Colton Rusk, both dog handlers who had been killed in action. I also was reacquainted with the veterinarian who saved Rex’s life when he performed an emergency gastropexy on him. Thankfully, our beloved veterinarians and vet techs are honored on the monument as well.
The most moving part of the ceremony for me was when Vietnam dog handler Jim Frost spoke with conviction to all Vietnam handlers, proclaiming “all your dogs are home now!” The war dogs that served in Vietnam are the only ones who never came home and, deservedly, there is a special “Not Forgotten Fountain” just for them.
The monument represents a proud tradition and legacy of saving lives. It is a symbol of honor and ultimate respect for war dog teams that have served in the past, those currently serving, and those dog teams who have yet to build a bond. It is especially symbolic for those handlers and dogs that have paid the ultimate sacrifice, for they will truly never be forgotten.
Mike Dowling is the author of Sergeant Rex: The Unbreakable Bond Between A Marine and His Military Working Dog.