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Long days rough on Lejeune battalion's shortest Marine

30 Jun 2004 | Cpl. Shawn C. Rhodes

Its easy to see why some might be annoyed by Sgt. Rex.  He's not what you'd call a typical Marine.

His hair is pushing the three-inch limit and he's always talking out of turn.  He's also always sticking his nose into everybody's business, which is exactly why the Marines from 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment love him.

From sun-up to sundown, the three-year old German Shepherd, a military working dog, trots alongside his handler.  He's a veteran of two firefights and his nearest medical care is an hour away.  Still, Rex plods along on his four paws, carrying out his duties to the Corps.

"It's a shepherd's mentality to love to work," said Cpl. Michael C. Dowling, a 25-year-old Richmond, Calif., dog handler attached to the battalion.  "He loves doing his job, even when his reward is a rubber ball he can play with."

Dowling said Rex has earned the respect of the Marines, none of whom seem to doubt he's earned his stripes.  He's on call every day, works through the heat with a single ambition to protect Marines.

"Rex has the title of sergeant because we're always taught to treat our dogs like they were one rank higher - with respect," Dowling explained.  "He's earned it.  Rex has been through two major firefights and acted great.  Loud noises don't bother him at all."

The working dog is kept busy because the services Rex offers are in such high demand. 

On June 29, Rex was called out to sweep a council building to make sure it was safe for the military officials to go inside later that day.   He quickly went to work sniffing through every room with his handler close behind.

When Rex had checked every room and the yard of the building, he waited with his handler by their Humvee.  The local Iraqis gave Rex a lot of space - they are mostly afraid of dogs and Rex doesn't help to change that image.

"He'll bark at Iraqis no matter who they are or what they're doing," Dowling said.  "He's very protective of the Marines here."

Still, that doesn't mean Rex isn't cool under fire.  He's never been one to tuck his tail.

The police station next door to the council building was attacked with small arms and rocket fire earlier that morning.  The Iraqi police were taking the wounded to an ambulance.  The activity was drawing a large crowd of onlookers, blocking the ambulance from leaving. 

Police responded by shooting an AK-47 in the air, which caused the Marines to all aim in on the policeman.  As shouts of "It's friendly fire!" echoed in the air and rifles were lowered, Rex remained undisturbed the whole time.

"He's used to the gunfire and won't react unless he's told to," Dowling said.

From the council building Rex and his handler rode back to the forward operating base where they soaked up the air conditioning.

"Rex has this thick coat of fur on him.  It's twice as hot for him as it is for us," Dowling said, petting Rex's side.  "The only way he can cool off is through the pads of his feet or his mouth, so when it's hot outside it really does a number on him."

Rex enjoys laying inside his kennel or on Dowling's rack.  The kennel is like Rex's "den" Dowling explained.

"In the wild, canines make their homes inside of cool dark places, so in the heat his kennel is one of the best spots for him to relax," he said.

The team received word that they would be needed to help search a group of buildings for explosives.  Marines believed the buildings were used for building vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices.  The handler and dog were used to this kind of work.  In fact, it's the mission for which they're trained.

"Military dogs are trained from a young age at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas," Dowling said.  "Rex picked up on the training very quickly and then moved to Camp Pendleton where he worked until arriving with me in Iraq in March."

Dowling explained Rex was trained to sniff for explosives like C-4 and other plastic explosives.

Rex moved his way in and out of all the buildings, sniffing carefully in, around and under everything he crossed.  Still, even the full day's duty in the heat of Iraq wore on him.  As the afternoon heat began to subside, Rex was dog-tired.  Eventually, Dowling had to call it a day.

"Rex has taken a lot of heat today," he said.  "He's just too tired right now to do his job as well as he could."

Dowling took Rex back to the vehicles and made sure he had as much cold water as he wanted to drink.  The dog's sides moved in and out quickly as his tongue dripped saliva onto the ground.  The heat was still strong enough to soak every Marine underneath their flak jackets but because of Rex's body, he couldn't expel heat so easily. 

Eventually the cool water and small piece of shade he had claimed cooled him enough to stop panting.  Marines continued to search the buildings until all of them were cleared.

After loading up, the Marines spun the vehicles around and headed back to their camp.  Rex laid down in between the feet of the warriors, his head resting on Dowling's boot.

"Rex is worn out for the day," Dowling said with a smile.  "But he did a good job, didn't you boy?" he said as he scratched the dog's head.

"When we get back, Rex's needs aren't different from the rest of the Marines here," Dowling said.  "He just wants chow and sleep."