Monday, February 20, 2012

War Dogs and Their Soldiers

I am honored to have Kevin Hanrahan, writer and soldier (Major Hanrahan), as my guest this week. I interviewed him about his work with military heroes, namely dogs. 

How did you decide to write a novel?
I remember the moment the idea of writing a book popped into my head vividly. I was in Kabul. It was early November, 2010, and United States forces lost three military working dogs and two handlers to the enemy in a single day. We had a really bad few week period where we were losing dogs or handlers almost every day. I was reading the reports and thought to myself, people need to know what these kids and their dogs are doing out here. These kids and their dogs are heroes. At the time I was reading a lighthearted book about a vineyard in Tuscany and thought to myself, I could do this. I can write a book. In fact I’m gonna write a book. Yes, it was as easy as that. I just decided one day to do it.
Did it start out as therapy or was it a way to relieve boredom?
I’ve been deployed five times. It is never easy. You miss your family and friends, worry about them and count the days until you will be with them again. I’ve always found the mental aspect of being deployed so much harder than the physical. Traditionally, I’ve found refuge through working out in the gym and running. The problem is I have torn ligaments in my right wrist, a herniated disk, two bulging, and degenerative disk disease in my back. So my ability to express myself through exercise has been significantly reduced. I had no outlet this last deployment to Afghanistan and desperately needed one. My novel became my therapy.
Are some experiences too painful or you feel the public wouldn’t understand?
No. I find talking about my experiences is quite therapeutic. Stuffing things deep down inside ones’ self isn’t the way to cope with the horrors of war. I would never say the public doesn’t understand what veterans go through. However, I would never say that I understand what a woman goes through during child birth. I can imagine, visualize and sympathize but can’t honestly understand.
U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Isaiah Schult, an
improvised explosive device dog handler, jokes with Afghan children
Once you started writing, did you collect stories? 
Absolutely. There were many weeks I wrote nothing for my novel because I was travelling around Afghanistan. It was easy for me to do field research because my duties and responsibilities required me to travel the country talking with military working dog handlers and unit leadership. I took notes in a small green book I carried everywhere. I also read every report involving Military Working Dogs in Afghanistan last year. I’ve read thousands of pages of after-action reviews for military working dog employment.
How do you incorporate your experiences into your novel?
Well, I write about American Soldiers and the dogs that protect them in the alien and treacherous terrain of Afghanistan. I know Soldiers because I am one. I know dogs because I’ve always loved them and have my own. I lived and breathed working dogs for a full year in Afghanistan. I even dreamed about them! As a Military Police Officer, military working dogs are part of our organic unit. I’ve been around Military Working Dogs for sixteen years.
What parts of writing do you struggle with most?
Most definitely my grammar. I should have paid better attention as a child in English class! But honestly I suffer from something it seems a lot of writers share... Is my writing good enough to be published? Confidence in my writing ability plagues me. However, I believe that there are different styles of writing for different people. My style will appeal to normal everyday folks. Probably because I am one.
What's easiest for you?
The story and plot line for the book. It just comes to me when I’m working out or walking my dogs. I write down my ideas in a notebook or now type them into my iPhone. I’ve always been able to create with my pen…now a computer keyboard.
When do you expect to finish the novel? Are you working with an agent?
I actually just shipped the revised edition to my editor this past weekend. The book has made a major transformation since my last round of submissions. The core of the story is still intact though. The novel has better pacing and is quicker to get into the action. I’m hopeful we will go into a final line edit and then back to the agents. I’m not working with an agent but have several that have asked me to submit the revised version to them. I’m hopeful that I’ll land an agent this spring.
I understand Paws on the Ground, your WIP, is about war dogs. Your love and admiration for dogs is apparent. Did you work with dogs in the Army?
I sort of already covered that above but my official title last year was United States Forces - Afghanistan Deputy Provost Marshal. Part of my responsibility was overseeing the working dog program for Afghanistan. Honestly though the program was such a beast to handle that it practically consumed me for the entire year. Fortunately for me I had two super- duper military working dog experts, Air Force Master Sergeant Barbara Black-Diaz and Navy Master Chief Scott Thompson on my team.
Were you a dog lover before you went in the military?
The most vivid books from my early childhood were Marmaduke and Clifford the Red Dog. I grew up reading Jack London, Wilson Rawls, watching Lassie and went back in forth between wanting Red Tick Hounds, a Husky or even a wolf! I got my first dog when I was in second grade. Alfredo was a small dachshound and I cherished her. She bit a child and was removed from our home when I was thirteen. I never had another dog and always wanted one. Military life is tough though especially if you are constantly deploying. I wanted to be a responsible pet owner. I finally put my foot down in 2004 while in Iraq. I decided that life was to short and if I survived that deployment I was getting myself a dog.
Did you train them?
I obedience trained my own dogs. I like to think that they are trained, but sometimes their behavior indicates otherwise. Personally, I believe that they humor me and allow me to believe they are trained. Umm, maybe you meant the military dogs! No, I personally don’t train them…the training aspect is the responsibility of the terrific noncommissioned officers that I work with.

Is there one in particular you'd like to tell us about?
I actually just posted on my site about a really cool prodigy dog, Uti. I love her. She is stationed here in Virginia and I’ll get to go see her again in a few months. She is a picture perfect Belgian Malinois. In Afghanistan there was one dog that really stood out to me. Archie, the chocolate lab, was an explosive-finding machine. When I saw him down in Kandahar I could see every rib on his body. The heat and constant patrolling really took a toll on him. He was back in Kandahar to rest and was just a sweetheart. I based one of the characters in my novel on this lovable 4-legged explosive-finding machine. Many of the explosive finds Archie had in Afghanistan are exactly the same ones that Paws of the Ground star Chica has in the book.
Do soldiers have to express a love for dogs before they're assigned to work with one?
Absolutely, it is in the military regulations. Dog handlers are all volunteers. You must build a strong bond with your dog to be an effective team. You can’t have a strong bond with a dog without the loving dogs.
Do the soldiers learn to love their dogs once they're around them?
Marc and Anax on Patrol
The bond between a military working dog and handler is deep. They rely on one another for survival. It is a bond they might have with their own dog.
How much comfort is there in having a dog with you?
Having a dog with you in a combat zone is like having a slice of home. Dogs are absolutely making an impact on the fight but their impact on the mental stability of our troops is immeasurable.
In the field, do soldiers and their dogs sleep together?
Yes they do. If they are back at camp then the dog sleeps in his/ her kennel.
Wouldn't you sleep better having a dog beside you? Do you share the warmth?
I’m sure the troops feel safer with their 4-legged pals sleeping next to them.
Do soldiers carry food for their dog? In the field, do they share rations?
Military Working Dog diets are very strict. They eat High Performance Science Diet. When troops go to into the field they must also pack for their dog. These are great details that I’ve actually put into my novel.
I've read about temperatures of 120 and 130 in parts of the Middle East. Are the dogs' feet protected?
Anax, who came home with three legs
There are different types of dog booties but normally the dogs hate them. The best thing to do for a dog’s feet are to a get them callused before they deploy to Afghanistan. The next best thing they can do is apply “Tough Paw” which actually provides a protective coating for the pads on their paws. Because of the terrain, heat and conditions, we still have lots of problems with torn pads.
I know you aren't supposed to pet service dogs while they're working, but do military dogs have time off?
Dogs need to decompress just like humans. They also need to interact with other dogs. Some dogs are aggressive and can’t interact with other dogs. But yes, military dogs get time off. They are living breathing creatures and need time to just be silly dogs.
Are local children allowed to pet them?
This depends on the temperament of the dog. Whenever you approach a working dog, you should ask the handler if it is all right to pet the dog. You can pet most but I never do unless I ask permission first. Some of these military working dogs are vicious.
Do other dogs attract them? Do they attract dogs?
Handsome Sammy and Sassy Stella
This is a big problem we have with local dogs getting near our military dogs. There are many times that even though our dogs are trained to work off of a leash, they are kept on the leash. We don’t need a military dog getting hurt by a pack of mutts.
Do they have toys to play with as rewards?
Absolutely! I love all your questions! It shows me that the factual details I put into my novel will answer many curiosities that folks have about military working dogs. Rewarding your dog is a fundamental of dog training, and we do it in the military as well.
I see from your website that you have Hungarian Vizslas. Aren't they unusual? How did you find them?
I mentioned before that when I was in Iraq in 2004-2005 I decided I needed a dog. My company First Sergeant was also going to get a dog when he returned. He is into Beagles and trains them for hunting. We conducted extensive research in our free time to determine the perfect dog for my personality. We settled on the Vizsla for several reasons. They are short-haired, very energetic, can run forever, and they are Velcro-like dogs, highly intelligent, medium size and great with kids. They are incredible pointers but are also great family dogs. The military and many other agencies are starting to use them for explosive detection because of their intelligence and high drive. They are definitely not mainstream dogs, but I think they should be. I want to spread the word on this great breed of dogs.
I found my Sammy online. The breeder sent me his lineage, which was quite impressive. The breeder seemed like a great lady so I took a leap of faith. One of the best decisions I ever made. I bought Stella three years later and they have had one litter together. We are hoping that this spring they will have another. I love Vizsla puppies!

 Kevin's blog is
You can find him on Facebook and Twitter.

All the pictures came from Kevin. You can see them and read about some of the dogs and their handlers, including how Anax lost a leg, on his blog. There's also a post about Cairo, the SEAL Team Six dog.   


Polly said...

What a GREAT post. Thanks Kevin and thanks Ellis for posting such a great blog. I sent this off to my veterinarian son, who is a great dog lover. He'll enjoy this.

I look forward to your book, Kevin. It's a winner.

Ellis Vidler said...

Kevin, thanks so much for being here. I still have questions. Are the soldiers who handle explosive-finding dogs trained to defuse bombs? What do they do if their dog finds something?

laura thomas said...

Thanks Ellis for having kevin on your blog and thanks kevin for the interview. Great job gentlemen!
laura thomas

Gloria Alden said...

Great interview, Ellis, and thanks, Kevin, for sharing your experiences. I want to read your book as soon as it's out. I love dogs, too, and have been very interested in those dogs that work finding explosives.

RD Meyer said...

I've known Kevin for going on five years now. His experiences are amazing and his love of the work is unparalleled.

Sandy Cody said...

Loved this interview, both the text and the pictures. Ellis, you asked questions I would never have thought to ask and elicited information I find fascinating. I'm glad our troops have dogs both as companions and helpers.

Anonymous said...

Looking forward to the book! Great topic! One question: are military dogs fixed or allowed to breed? Seems a dog in heat would be difficult to work with.
Sally Carpenter

Kevin Hanrahan said...

Sorry all... Should have checked back earlier. Dog handlers don't defuse bombs. EOD or the Afghan troops do.

The handler calls in one of the above to handle the situation. Right now it is mainly the Afghan troops.

Female dogs in the field are fixed. Males are not. We do have a breeding program at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. My pal, Uti ( my post from Monday) is a Puppy program momma.

Thank you everyone for your kind words.

Una Tiers said...

Thanks for the interesting article Kevin. The dogs are heroes and beautiful.