This book has all the elements of a top-notch, bestselling thriller: breathtaking suspense; a violent and unpredictable setting; an unlikely pair of heroes who are ill-prepared for their new surroundings; and an ending that will have readers on the edge of their seats. But Mike Dowling’s book isn’t a work of fiction; rather, it is the true-life story of Mike’s 2004 deployment to Iraq with his Military working Dog named Rex; their mission was to seek out hidden IEDs, guns and ammunition in the infamous Triangle of Death. Charged with protecting a highly trained unit of Marines, Dowling and his German Shepherd Rex faced day after day of intensely dangerous, often perilous work as they tried to survive in a volatile country half a world away from home and loved ones.
“Sergeant Rex: The Unbreakable Bond Between a Marine and His Military Dog, by Mike Dowling, is available at www.SimonAndSchuster.com.
Excerpt from the book:
We start the walk.
IED Alley stretches before us, a deserted length of rubble-strewn, sun-baked dirt. To the uninitiated, there‘s nothing obvious here that screams out violence and danger. To me, gazing down IED Alley is like peering into the very jaws of hell, or reading my own death sentence.
To either side of the route I can see the broken mounds of shattered earth and the craters where roadside bombs have blown themselves—and all too often their targets—to smithereens. But luckily, typically, Rex my search dog is out front alone and unperturbed, eager to sniff out the bombs.
I‘ve felt fear every day that we‘ve led these patrols. It‘s been my constant companion here in Iraq. But this morning was different. This morning the terror had me gripped as never before.
It was Rex who gifted me the strength to get up and to carry on. He gave me this one look – come on partner, we can do this; you got me by your side – and I knew then that I had to raise my game to the level of my dog.
I look to my fellow Marines as my own brothers, and Rex and I are tasked with keeping them safe from the insurgent‘s bombs out here. Having my courageous, crazy, stubborn, loyal, dedicated, handsomely devilish dog by my side helps me deal with the enormous stress of that responsibility.
I gaze down IED Alley and give Rex the command, the magic words: ―Seek … Seek … Seek …‖ But right now they‘re rasping out from a throat that‘s dry and constricted with fear.
In response Rex is off. His nose starts going like a suction pump: slurp, slurp, slurp. He‘s dropped his muzzle low to the ground, and he‘s hoovering up the scent just inches off the dirt. His tail‘s held horizontal behind him, the end flicked up just a fraction, as his head sweeps from side to side.
I‘d know that posture anywhere: here I am, dad, on the search, and I’m just loving it. Rex always has loved sniffing out the bombs. It‘s like he was born to do this work. From the earliest days of training he always was one of the few and the proud—an unbeatable Marine Corps arms and explosives detection dog.
I‘m a couple of paces behind him, his lead looped around my left hand. My M16 assault rifle is slung over my back on its sling, and my Beretta M9 pistol is griped in my right hand. My rifle‘s too long and unwieldy to use much when searching with my dog.
If Rex steps on an improvised explosive device (IED), we‘re both as good as done for. But we‘ve been ordered to clear this route—IED Alley—so our patrol can pass through it, and the two of us out front on foot is the only way to do it.
To Rex, clearing the route of death is all a fantastic game. I‘ve shown him a flash of his rubber ball – his reward—and he knows if he finds the target scent he gets to play with it. It‘s only me who‘s wracked with this visceral, heart-stopping fear—fear that the next step Rex‘s paws take may be his, and my last.
Rex‘s whole focus is his sense of smell now, and that‘s how he‘s navigating. He‘s moving through a world defined by scent. He‘s tracking smells on the hot, dusty air, his footfalls dictated by the direction those odours are coming from. He only lifts his head now and then to check on his location—that he‘s not about to walk into a wall or tumble into a ditch.
We‘re a third of the way down IED Alley. My pulse is hammering away like a jackhammer. Every time Rex raises a paw and places it onto the baking-hot earth I can feel myself tensing for the blast. But I force myself to keep moving forwards with him, and the sweat‘s pouring off me in bucket-loads.
It‘s shortly after first light, yet already the temperature out here must be pushing one hundred degrees. If it‘s this hot for me, how must it be for Rex, all wrapped up in his thick, shaggy, charcoal-brown coat of fur? But nothing seems to faze my dog, not even the burning Iraqi sun that‘s beating down on his head and shoulders.
I see Rex approaching this small patch of dirt to the front of us, one that looks as if it might recently have been disturbed. The difference in this area is minimal: it‘s just a slightly different colour than the earth all around it, as if it‘s been dug up and tamped down again.
Whenever I spot an unusual area of terrain, I read it as one of the signs that an IED may be buried there. I‘m hyper-alert, and my threat radar is working overtime. I try to work out what might lie beneath that patch of dirt, ‗cause I can‘t let Rex go walking right over it. Not for the first time since we deployed to Iraq, I‘m cursing the fact that I don‘t have X-ray vision—that I can‘t see the bombs lying just below the earth‘s surface.
I see Rex pause just a few paces short of that patch of dirt. I see his nostrils flare, and suddenly he‘s sucking in these great lung-full‘s of air. He turns his head this way and that sampling the scent, until he‘s got his nose pressed up tight against the hot mud of the earth.
Rex snuffles hard a good few times, then glances back at me. His sparkling, amber eyes are wide with the thrill of the search. There‘s this unspoken bond between us. I can read his every expression, and I figure I can pretty much read his mind.
This look means: hey, dad, I really think I’m onto something here.
―Easy, boy, careful,‖ I whisper at him. ―Easy does it, Rexy. What you think you got there, boy?‖
He moves ahead a foot or so until he‘s level with the patch of dirt. His muzzle swings this way and that, before he‘s staring right at it. He pokes his snout forwards, until he‘s sniffing at the very surface of that disturbed area of earth.
His entire body goes rigid. He gives me this quick, intense, piercing look: freakin’ hell, dad, get in here and check this out!
I feel my blood run cold. Rex never false responds—signaling that he‘s found something when actually he hasn‘t. There‘s some kind of explosive device buried right in front of my dog‘s nose, of that I am one hundred percent certain.
I don‘t know why for sure – it can only be in response to the unspoken message that‘s flashed between Rex and me – but I lunge forwards, and with one hand I grab his collar and haul him backwards.
In my mind‘s eye I can picture a gleeful Iraqi insurgent hunched over a detonator device, punching the firing tit, and hoping to blow the shaggy dog and his handler into shreds of flesh and gore.
With my free hand I reach for my radio so I can send out an alert to the rest of the patrol strung out behind us. I press the send button and yell out a warning: ―There‘s a …‖
My words are lost in this deafening roar of an explosion. I hit the dirt, elbow myself forwards and dive on top of Rex, hoping to shield him from the blast. But an instant later I sense that it‘s not the bomb in front of us that‘s gone off. If it were, we‘d both be dead by now.
Just to the east of us above the palm trees, there‘s a massive plume of smoke and debris fisting into the sky. An IED has been triggered there, to one side of our road.
The harsh, juddering crackle of gunfire thunders out of the smoke and dust, as the insurgents unleash a barrage of fire in a follow-up attack. I roll across Rex, getting my body between him and the pounding gunfire.
I‘m wearing body armour. Rex isn‘t. I‘m not about to let anyone shoot my best buddy—my dog. I wrap all six foot of myself around him, and pull the thick fur of his body in tight against me.
As I hold him there, I whisper in to his ear: ―It‘s okay, boy, it‘s okay. It‘s all gonna be all right …