Of Dogs and Soldiers
Megan Leavey, based on a true story, spins a tale in mostly predictable ways while regularly grabbing your emotions and spiking your adrenaline. Megan, whose best friend died of an overdose, is stuck in the guilt of having survived, and the trauma of loss. She fights constantly with her mother, who never seems to understand. Seemingly bereft of options, Megan enlists in the Marines. She makes this multiyear commitment just to get away from her life as it is.
If we were to consider the dogs in this film as a metaphor for our expectation and treatment of human soldiers, it would change our understanding.
Megan makes it through basic training, but doesn’t leave behind the autopilot urge to mess up. As weeklong punishment for peeing in bushes in front of an officer’s house while under the influence, she is forced to clean up what dogs leave behind in their kennels. On her first day she meets Rex, a German shepherd, whose bark scares her. While cleaning, she discovers that these dogs are being trained to sniff out bombs and explosives in Iraq. She wants in—almost as if she understands that working with one of these dogs would give her a type of relationship she hasn’t had for years. To get in she must score at the top of all the tests, including fitness, shooting, and knowledge. Nothing in the beginning of this tale would suggest that she has what it takes to achieve this, but her motivation kicks in and she makes it.
Even then she doesn’t get a dog, but uses an ammo can on a leash to learn the basics of handling. Just weeks before the group is scheduled to ship out, Rex bites his handler, breaking multiple bones in the hand. Megan is assigned to be the new trainer for Rex, the dog that frightens her and just about everyone else. Rex teaches her patience and eventually how to love again. They are a team when they board the plane to join the mission.
Megan has limited duty at first since she is a woman, but soon the lack of trained dogs gets her and Rex involved in more and more patrols. Megan and Rex work hard, get injured, keep on working, save many lives, and get injured more severely. Through all of this they are together, and Rex saves her life one more time, this time physically.
Yes, Megan is changed—but she has to learn one more thing: to fight for those you love. You may or may not be a hero, but you need to fight for those you love. She must fight to keep Rex from being put down as his military career comes to an end. While we get the expected ending, the film offers us another layer beneath the heartwarming tale if we choose to explore it.
What else does the film highlight? The sheer trauma of always living with a heightened sense of awareness, of not trusting anyone, the reality that you could be hit by a hidden IED at any time, that anyone coming through a checkpoint could be a potential enemy. In addition to this long-term stress, the soldiers must often respond with violence and experience the wounding of their own body. The soldiers return home and often try to bury this experience, and U.S. society often chooses to ignore the hidden damage that soldiers carry.
If we were to consider the dogs in this film as a metaphor for our expectation and treatment of human soldiers, it would change our understanding. We train the dogs, they provide their service in the most challenging and dangerous places, and then we discard them when they are no longer able to serve. Is this also the narrative of the way we treat soldiers after they return home? If they are more likely to become addicted to alcohol or drugs, if they are more likely to be homeless, if they suffer PTSD, if they suffer depression at higher rates, if they have trouble living without responding violently to their families, all while we offer little in the way of support and in fact deny this reality, then I would suggest that Rex’s experience is not abnormal. Who is in the struggle, as Megan was, to save Rex?
The second issue this film raises is that while Megan and her unit were able to secure checkpoints, they also were part of a system that seems to contribute to the humiliation of others—of making more enemies, rather than more friends.
The film is heartwarming, and the dogs that played the part of Rex are amazing. I hope viewers will also think about the deeper story.
Disclaimer: No dogs paid me to write this review, but I have been influenced and loved by several amazing dogs in my life.
All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.