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Soldiers find special bond with dogs trained for war

Some 2,500 dogs have accompanied American warriors on patrol and in close combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tasks like bomb detection and protection demand dedication to their human handlers, with whom they often form a special bond in the face of danger. Margaret Warner talks to Rebecca Frankel, author of "War Dogs: Tales of Canine Heroism, History and Love."

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Finally tonight, Margaret Warner speaks with the author of a new book about the special bond between warriors walking on four legs and those born with just two.

  • MAN:

    He's a good dog, been my best friend over here.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    For U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, man's best friend has more than lived up to the billing. Some 2,500 dogs have accompanied soldiers and Marines there on patrol and in close combat. It's the latest for canines over centuries of battle, from ancient Rome through World War I.

    The U.S. military first officially used dogs in World War II as scouts and enemy trackers and again in Vietnam. And when U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan faced a barrage of improvised explosive devices, the dog and handler teams proved the best detection tool of all.

    Rebecca Frankel, a senior editor at "Foreign Policy" magazine, whose "War Dog of the Week" is a signature online feature, writes about all this in a new book: "War Dogs: Tales of Canine Heroism, History and Love."

    We met at the working dog kennels of the Quantico Marine Base outside Washington.

    That is a good dog.

    REBECCA FRANKEL, Author, "War Dogs: Tales of Canine Heroism, History and Love": That is an experienced dog.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And spoke at the National Museum of the Marine Corps nearby.

    Rebecca Frankel, thank you for joining us.

  • REBECCA FRANKEL:

    Thank you for having me.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    You write early on that you thought you would be writing about dogs in military service, and instead you found yourself writing as much about people?

  • REBECCA FRANKEL:

    I joke sometimes that you can't really interview a dog.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • REBECCA FRANKEL:

    And they certainly have their own stories, but once I started to talk to their handlers and to talk to the families of handlers, it really became more about what the dog was doing or bringing forth from these people and how it changed their lives.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And it is worth noting that these dogs and their handlers, as a team, have a very dangerous role to play.

  • REBECCA FRANKEL:

    They do.

    Their job is very dangerous. And I think sometimes that gets lost a little bit. A handler, as much a dog, is out in front of a patrol. You know, if there are bombs on the road, then it's their job to find them. And it's their job to not just keep people safe, but to make them feel as though they're trusted, that they can walk down this road, that they're safe to keep their eyes and ears on other things.

    And so it's quite a responsibility for them to bear. But they're also trained to let their dog go to protect, to physically use the dog and all of the assets that they have, from their teeth to their powerful jaws, to just the weight and force of their body, to protect them.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    So what makes a great war dog and what makes a great handler? What sets them apart?

  • REBECCA FRANKEL:

    So, I think a good dog is good at smelling, is good at taking commands. And a handler is good at recognizing the talent of their dog.

    But it's a relationship, and so they have to know each other really well. It's about the connection between the dog and the handler. You can have a really, really talented dog, but if the handler and the dog aren't synched up or if they're not a solid team, then the work that they do is not going to be as solid.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Now, time and again in these stories, and in these chapters, you return to the theme of trust. What are they trusting one another for?

  • REBECCA FRANKEL:

    Well, I think that a dog that is maybe more experienced is going to know whether or not their handler is confident in what they're doing.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    That's a tough test.

  • REBECCA FRANKEL:

    It is. The handlers will say oftentimes that the emotions run up and down the leash. So, if a handler is nervous or uncertain about what they're doing, the dog is going to be put off by that.

    I have seen a very seasoned dog not take commands from their handler because they just were stubborn and they felt like, I know what I'm doing, and so they will just sit or plant and not really follow through.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And they also feel very protective toward each other. You have one story about a young Marine named Colton Rusk and his big black Lab, Eli.

  • REBECCA FRANKEL:

    Yes, so Colton Rusk was a handler from Texas. I think he deployed on his 20th birthday, so he was a very young man when he left. And he went with an improvised explosion detection dog, Eli, a black Lab.

    And Labs are known to be affectionate. And they were very close. And they were on a patrol. And Colton was shot by a Taliban sniper. And he sort of fell where he was standing. And the dog's reaction was to climb on top of him, on his fallen body, and protect him.

    And in that frenzy of sort of the moment and the chaos, the dog wasn't sure, you know, who could be trusted. So, he wouldn't let anyone come near him. And they were able to get the dog away, and they tried to save him, but he didn't make it.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    But then, at the end of the book, Eli joins the family, and he protects them again, but in a different way.

  • REBECCA FRANKEL:

    The Marine Corps and other branches of service don't do this very often, where they take a young dog who is in the middle of their career and let them adopt out to the family, but they did in this case.

    And the effect I think it had on their household was very profound.

  • KATHY RUSK, Mother:

    I just wish he could talk and tell us some stories. We're going to be able to share the love that we have for our son with something that he loved dearly.

  • REBECCA FRANKEL:

    Kathy said when they brought Eli home that he went straight to Colton's room.

    And so, for them, to sort of see that, I think it was a sign that they had part of their son back again. They have a younger son, Colton's younger brother, and Eli would get in bed with him every night and stay in bed with until he fell asleep. And Kathy says that when she has tough days, that Eli will come and find her, and he just kind of sits with her, and keeps her company until she can get herself out of bed.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And the dogs are as vulnerable to the emotional or psychological strain of war and repeated deployments as some humans.

  • REBECCA FRANKEL:

    Oh, absolutely.

    They have — they call it canine PTSD or CPSTD. And I think it would be a little bit foolish to think that a dog, who are sort of sentient beings, they have emotions — or at least I believe that they do — could experience the same tension and chaos and loud sounds and having IEDs explode near them and not be affected by it.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And death.

  • REBECCA FRANKEL:

    And — yes, and death.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Just outside the National Marine Corps Museum stands a monument to 25 dogs who died helping liberate Guam in World War II, and to all American military dogs slain in the decades since.

    When dogs die on the battlefield, are they always memorialized?

  • REBECCA FRANKEL:

    They are. The handler will give a talk; they will say what the dog meant to them and what the dog did in his or her career, and then everyone in the unit or the battalion sort of commemorates them. And it's just like any other fallen service member.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And that was true in both Iraq and Afghanistan?

  • REBECCA FRANKEL:

    In Iraq and Afghanistan, yes.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    How does the military look on these dogs, as a serviceman to be taken care of when they're damaged or as a piece of equipment to be used and discarded?

  • REBECCA FRANKEL:

    They are treated like a service member. If they deploy with handler, they come back with a handler. As one Marine said to me, we bring everybody home, and that includes the dogs.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    The United States is out of Iraq, winding down in Afghanistan. What is happening to all these dogs?

  • REBECCA FRANKEL:

    A lot of these dogs getting adopted out, or they're being transferred over to Homeland Security or to police canine units, which is wonderful.

    These are trained working dogs and they deserve a place to work.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    In your concluding chapter, you said, "To know war dogs is not to know war, but they can help us understand it better."

    What did you mean?

  • REBECCA FRANKEL:

    I meant that I think that these are stories that are important for us to hear. Sometimes, we are very distant from the military.

    And certainly the service members who have been going over to combat, they represent such a small portion of our overall population. And I think to see dogs is also — it's — the leash is still there. So if you know the story of the war dog, then I think inevitably you know the story of the person holding the leash, which is important.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Rebecca Frankel, thank you.

  • REBECCA FRANKEL:

    Thank you.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Online, you can find more from Rebecca Frankel on the enduring bond between a Marine and his combat dog. That's on our home page at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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