Remembering the Vietnam War’s Combat Dogs

When it comes to telling stories at a magazine like National Geographic, there is always more story to tell than there are magazine pages to fill. While photographing “The Dogs of War,” the cover story for the June 2014 issue, Adam Ferguson’s assignment was complicated by an unforeseen encounter with a Belgian Malinois at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. His personal experience didn’t make it into the magazine, but Sarah Leen, Director of Photography at National Geographic magazine and the photo editor for “The Dogs of War,” thought it was worth sharing. She called Ferguson up so they could chat about his experience. You can hear their conversation on Ferguson overcoming an unexpected hurdle, his decision to take on the assignment in the first place, and what it was like to witness soldier dogs in action, in the multimedia piece above.

Scroll down to read an edited transcript of the entire conversation below.

SARAH: I’ve had a passion for military working dogs and the history of military working dogs for about 20 years. I’ve really been interested in the photography that was produced about this amazing topic in history. So when we had the opportunity to do a story about military working dogs and their handlers for National Geographic magazine I was extremely excited. I immediately started thinking about what kind of photographer could do this job. I knew that we would be covering them in Afghanistan, in a conflict zone, so I knew I needed to find somebody who could work in a conflict zone. I looked at a lot of photographers’ work. And I came across Adam Ferguson’s work. He had worked in conflict zones, but he had a very special eye—the way he saw things and the way he put his images together. I thought he might be just the right person to cover this story for us and bring a special point of view.

So Adam, what did you think when I called you up and asked you if you were interested in working on a story about military working dogs?

ADAM: Sarah I was flattered and incredibly excited, but it also came with a slight spike of pain. Just to give you a bit of background, the previous trip that I’d done before the first War Dogs trip, I’d gotten caught in a really tough ambush with U.S. army troops near the border with Pakistan. I’d had a U.S. Army soldier get shot about five meters away from me and die. And I had a moment out there laying in the mud getting shot at that day where it’s like, “I’ve had enough of this. No more Afghanistan.” But it had always been my dream to work for National Geographic, and I knew you were an incredibly esteemed editor, so when you called for this I wanted to say “yes” but I also wanted to say “no.” I had to make the big decision whether I’d put my war boots back on and take the assignment. And I decided I couldn’t let an opportunity like this go, so I did.

SARAH: And we’re so happy that you did. The story has turned out so beautifully. So after that we were all set to do it, and we started working on gaining permission to go to a lot of the various bases so we could cover the aspects that involve training the dogs, and the puppy program, and the foster program, and so many things that look at how you create a military working dog and the various types of working dogs. So finally we were all set, and we had a month of travel for you in the United States going to all kinds of bases. We started at the Lackland Air Force base in Texas. You came over to Texas, and then tell us what happened.

ADAM: Well they had the Military Working Dogs Trials on, a big competition where dogs come from all over to compete. So I was there for that. And on the side of that, I was taken to one of the breeding programs where they breed the puppies that then go on to become soldier dogs. And I was called into an enclosure this day with a very aggressive Belgian Malinois, a fully-grown patrol dog, so it’s trained to attack as well as to detect explosives. I was called into this enclosure with it. And this dog didn’t like the look of me and my camera. It tore me up. It did exactly what it was trained to do. It bit me three times in the back until I dropped to the ground and dropped my camera, and then it got hold of my upper right arm. By that stage the handler had run over, and we kind of ripped it off my arm together. My shirt was in a tattered bloody mess, and people were running from the woodwork. The ambulance came and got me and took me to the hospital. It wasn’t pretty.

SARAH: I remember very clearly your phone call that afternoon. This was day two of the assignment. At first I thought you sounded like you’d been drinking, but actually you were on a pile of painkillers calling me from the hospital. You said something like “Don’t worry, but I’ve been bit, and I’m in the hospital.” I thought, “There goes the story.” I remember thinking, “Well you’d better just come home and recover.” And we had a discussion. But tell a little bit about how you decided to stay.

ADAM: Well you know, you had said it was fine to take the week off, and that seemed like the sensible thing to do—to rest up and take stock and get back into it. I’ve had enough exposure to trauma with the kind of conflict work that I’ve done, that I really knew that if I got on that plane out of there and had a week off that I’d never return to the story. And I really wasn’t prepared to let it go that easily. So I decided what I had to do was get straight back out there and surround myself with the dogs. So the next day I went back out. I didn’t photograph a lot, but I just put myself near the dogs. It was kind of terrifying. I’d flinch every time these dogs came near me. It just really took me two weeks to get over that so that every day it just got a little bit easier and my wounds got a little bit better until I overcame that trauma. Now I kind of feel like I’m fearless with dogs.

SARAH: Also, you said it became a little bit like you were now a member of the club with the handlers.

ADAM: Yeah, the military working dog world is a really small world— it’s a bit of a subculture within the United States military. Everyone knows everyone and everybody knew the dog that had bitten me because it had this notorious reputation. So I went back out to the war dog competition that was going on in San Antonio the next day, and everybody had already heard that the National Geographic photographer had been bitten. I’d earned my stripes. It brought a great deal of respect from all the other handlers because they’ve all been bitten as well, so I became part of the club.

SARAH: I would say that this was kind of an anomaly situation. Most of the handlers and the dogs that you met were really wonderful animals, and the relationships were wonderful between the soldiers and their dogs. Can you talk a little bit about that relationship? Especially about Jason and Isaac?

ADAM: Yeah. An incredibly tight bond occurs between some of the dog teams. I mean they sleep with these dogs, they train with these dogs, and when the soldiers are deployed with their dogs they’re a long way from home in very hostile places, and they forge this incredibly strong relationship with their dogs. The good dog teams have something that’s amazingly intuitive. During the training that all the dog handlers go through in Texas, they learn a lot of hand signals and you know there’s a formality to the way that a handler and a dog interact. But what I witnessed on the battlefield was something very intuitive and beyond the kind of training that these teams get back in Texas. Something very natural occurred. A handler would just have to look at their dog and they knew what was going on already before hand signals or before the formal training. I went on one operation with a soldier by the name of Jason Cartwright, sergeant Jason Cartwright, and he had a special search dog called Isaac. A specialized search dog works off leash. He was a Black Labrador. Isaac was a gorgeous dog, and they were a very intuitive team. We went on an operation in northern Kandahar province to disrupt the Taliban supply routes. There was almost a full company of soldiers in two Chinook helicopters, and as the helicopter I was in touched down, soldiers poured out of its belly into the night. There was an intense energy—no one really knew what we were running into. And then as the helicopter lifted everyone paused, and it was Cartwright and Isaac’s job to lead this whole company of soldiers through the darkness to ensure that nobody stepped on an IED. So there’s a whole company of lives on their heads, which was a huge responsibility. That’s the kind of tension and the kind of mission that these dog teams go out and perform on a daily basis in places like Afghanistan.

SARAH: Usually when you’re covering conflict, like in Afghanistan, anything the soldiers are doing is part of your coverage, but here you had to make a dog the center of that image and look at things from that point of view. Did that present any special challenges?

ADAM: Yeah it did, it forced me to look at the war in a whole new way. In all my previous work in conflict, I’d never really tried to photograph the drama of war. I tried to photograph the individual drama of life and the experience of war. And that would very much come down to how that played out with individual soldiers in remote parts of Afghanistan. To look at it with the dogs was very different because I wasn’t in a remote part of the country, so this kind of feeling of isolation and futility that I explored in all my other work had moved out of the way. I had to really focus on photographing two people interacting together or an animal and a person interacting together in this space.

SARAH: How do you think this story might inform your work moving forward?

ADAM: I think the way this story will inform my work in the future is that it gave me a new appreciation for the back end of the military. I’ve spend a lot of time embedding at the pointy end of the spear, so to speak, in remote combat operations posts, but this story took me all the way back to these big bases in The States and to places in Europe, and I developed a much more complex understanding of the U.S. military than I had previously. I’m not sure how that will channel directly into my pictures, but it has to on some level.

SARAH: I’d like to go back a little bit to the soldiers and their relationship with the dogs. Did you have the impression that these dog teams are an important part of saving lives, that these handlers and their dogs are saving peoples’ lives?

ADAM: I think the dog teams are an incredibly important part of that. A good dog team will be accepted by the other soldiers as they go and attach themselves to a huge extent, to the point where if a bunch of soldiers are lining up to have chow or to have their food at a certain time of day in a remote part of Afghanistan and they’ve got a good dog team there, they will let that dog team go to the front and eat first. That dog handler might skip the shower line on a remote combat operation post because they have that kind of respect, and they know that they want that handler to be well rested and they want that dog to be well rested. Another thing that I witnessed was soldiers carrying water for the dogs because the dog handler could only carry so much. People were too willing to do that, and company commanders were too willing to tell their guys to carry water for the dogs. They knew that the animal had to be at its peak performance because if it wasn’t, people’s legs were on the line.

SARAH: There are a lot of support systems around these dogs from puppy to deployment—training the puppies, fostering them, training the handlers, the really important veterinary service and care these dogs get. Can you talk a little bit about that—all the people, the support systems along the way? Maybe there is a particular part of that journey that dog makes that impressed you?

ADAM: Well, you start with a puppy specialist. And they’re the people that work at the breeding program in San Antonio who go out and play with these dogs every day until they’re three-months-old. And then the dogs are fostered out into a civilian family within the local community who will take one of these dogs for a six-month period. It’s kind of a period of socialization of the dog so it learns how to be around other people. Then once the dog goes through its training there’s a whole veterinary team and hospital devoted to the dog. When the dogs are deployed to the battlefield there are military hospitals devoted to dogs called “vet teams,” and if a dog needs treatment, like high-end medical treatment, they have access to the same facilities as the soldiers. So it’s not uncommon to see a war dog being wheeled down a hospital on a trolley just like a wounded soldier or marine might be. That’s quite remarkable, that these animals receive that kind of sophisticated treatment. I spent a week on Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan with a U.S. army vet team. There were five of these guys in a tent right near the airstrip. Every day they would do physical check-ups of dogs and treat dogs for different kinds of ailments. They had a huge passion for the dogs, which was quite remarkable. They’d receive dogs that had gotten into fights with Afghan dogs, they’d receive dogs which had paid the ultimate price and been wounded by gunfire or by IEDs.
SARAH: I want to talk about one more thing. So after this dog has had this amazing career as a military working dog, tell us a little bit about what happens at the end of their career and the adoption program.

ADAM: When a dog is medically retired, their first handler has priority to adopt that dog. If that handler doesn’t choose to adopt that dog they go into an adoption program. There’s a complete program in San Antonio that finds homes for these dogs. And what’s extraordinary is there is a waiting list of people who are just itching to own a war dog. And these dogs go and live out their days in a suburban backyard. I spent time with a few different dogs that had been adopted. One in particular, Kimberley, who is featured in the magazine, was a multiple Iraq veteran and had a little bit of post-traumatic stress and was an explosives dog, now spends her afternoons with three little girls playing in a suburban backyard in Texas, which is kind of coming completely full circle back home.

SARAH: And also the Wounded Warriors are at the top of the list to adopt their dogs, correct?

ADAM: Yeah, if a soldier is wounded and medically retired they have priority to adopt their dogs. It’s incredibly difficult if a soldier loses a limb to an IED. The military ensures that they get that dog. I spent time with two marine dog handlers that had both lost limbs in Afghanistan, and they both adopted their dogs.

SARAH: The bond is very strong

ADAM: That bond is incredibly strong. I think it’s hard for a marine or a soldier that has lived through something like that to move beyond it. I think you can see that in the kinds of experiences and stories that we encounter through veterans from conflicts like Vietnam, so being able to adopt their dog that they went through that experience with is an incredibly important part of their rehabilitation.

SARAH: Is there anything else you’d like to say?

ADAM: I forgot to say the funny little anecdote about after I had been bitten by the dog. You, Sarah, everyday made me send you a photo of my wounds and a score, 1-10. You were monitoring my health, which was extraordinarily supportive.

SARAH: I remember thinking “Oh my gosh, I’m going to need to hear every day how you’re doing and how you’re improving.” So we set up our little code “A” for “arm” and “B” for “back” and then it was like a 1-10 and you were supposed to send me like “A,3” and “B,6” and as long as the numbers were headed toward 10 we knew we were on the road to recovery. I thought that worked really well. And then if it got stalled on a number for a little while then I’d pick up the phone and go, “How come your back’s not getting any better? Maybe you should go have it checked.” I remember that. And you went back to the clinic, remember? It was good.

SARAH: Well you were amazing on this story. You did a beautiful job, and we’re all so proud of this work and this story. I really want to thank you so much.

ADAM: Well thank you for the support, Sarah. It was an honor to do it. And I actually just found a U.S. edition of the magazine in a bookstore in Bangkok, and I’ve got it sitting in front of me. I hadn’t seen the magazine until about two hours ago. It looks really good.

SARAH: Well there’s a box of them on the way to you. It’ll probably take a little while to get there, so I’m glad you found it!

You can see more pictures from “The Dogs of War” here, read the feature story here, and watch a video about Layka, the soldier dog on the cover of the June issue, here.
See more of Adam Ferguson’s work on his website and follow him on Instagram.

Follow Sarah Leen on Instagram.

Follow Becky Harlan on Instagram.

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