Review: Marine dog handler’s book hard to put down

“Sergeant Rex: The Unbreakable Bond Between a Marine and His Military Working Dog” (Atria), by Mike Dowling with Damien Lewis

Every armed conflict that featured an American military presence has inevitably been followed by a cavalcade of books written about the exploits of those who fought in it — from the decision-making generals and admirals to the front line grunts and everyone in between.

That tradition has continued with the war in Iraq, with dozens of volumes dedicated to the fall of Baghdad and the yearslong battle with insurgents that followed.

Mike Dowling is one of those who fought in Iraq. The Marine was deployed in 2004, where he served with the battle-hardened Warlords unit that was based in the ultraviolent Triangle of Death.

His story isn’t that of the typical Marine warrior, however. Dowling saw plenty of combat, yes, but he and a colleague were charged with saving lives, not taking them.

In “Sergeant Rex: The Unbreakable Bond Between a Marine and His Military Working Dog,” Dowling recounts how he and his German shepherd comrade risked their lives on a near-daily basis while laying the groundwork for future K9 teams serving in battlefield units.

Dowling does a terrific job of transporting the reader to Iraq circa 2004, describing in heart-pounding detail how Rex, despite searing heat and the specter of constant danger, sniffed out scores of the bad guys’ improvised explosive devices, bomb-making materials and ammunition caches.

The real-feel nature of Dowling’s prose is only part of the reason “Sergeant Rex” is such a compelling read. It’s the relationship between handler and military working dog that really jumps off the page — the whole man’s best friend thing.

Or in this case, Marine’s best friend.

Dowling deftly establishes the pair’s symbiotic relationship by tracing back to their first meeting, through training at Camp Pendleton in California and into the hellish war zones in Iraq.

“Rex is three years old, and during the last year and a half we’ve spent barely a day apart,” Dowling writes during a passage in which he and Rex are under fire in Iraq. “He has become my life.”

At one point, Dowling wraps his body around Rex to shield him from gunfire. “I’m not about to let anyone shoot my best buddy,” he writes.

Readers — dog lovers or not — cannot help but hang on every word (or cheat forward in the book) to see if Rex survives the countless roadside bomb patrols and trips “outside the wire” where he encounters packs of rabid stray dogs and insurgents, all of whom are intent on killing him.

We know Dowling survives. He wrote the book.

But what happens to Rex?!?

“Sergeant Rex” represents the best kind of nonfiction — an impossible-to-put-down true life story that immerses readers in suspense and sets up a thrilling conclusion at which they cannot wait to arrive.

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