How a Chance Encounter Inspired Me to Write About Military Dogs

Last Updated on May 6, 2016 by

It all started with a tap on the shoulder while I was seated at a mess table in the dining facility of the U.S. military base in Baghdad, Iraq. I turned to discover a familiar face, but one that that took me a breath or two to recognize. It was a face from half a world away and from over two decades prior. It was Neil Ahle, a veterinary school classmate from the University of Missouri. We had graduated together in 1985, and now it was the winter of 2010. After school, I had gone into private practice, while Ken had continued a career with the military as part of the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps.

So how did this chance meeting, that drew us together again, come about?

After practicing for 15 years, my career as a veterinarian took a side turn into writing, specifically concocting thrillers involving science and history (where I also include many animals in my books, from orphaned jaguar cubs to search-and-rescue shepherds). I had been invited, along with four other authors, to participate in a USO tour to Iraq and Kuwait.


We were touring various bases, speaking to the troops about writing, about journaling their experiences, while also learning ourselves about the day-in and day-out of military life in the Middle East. We were shuttled aboard C-130 Hercules, sleeping in beds with cement bunkers dug out next to them in case of a mortar attack, and flying over burning oil fields where the sands were stained black.

Then there was that fateful tap. Lieutenant Colonel Ahle had learned of my arrival in Baghdad and purposefully set about to ambush me in the DFAC (or “dining facility,” I translated as I slowly began to decipher the multitude of acronyms that populate military lingo). After taking a moment to reorient ourselves to this strange happenstance, we spent that dinner commiserating about our vet school years, but I also got a chance to hear more about his role with the military.

I learned of his efforts to stave off the spread of rabies among Iraqi dogs and of his work with military working dogs, those four-legged soldiers I had seen out in the fields of the bases we had visited, serving in various functions from guard duty to bomb-sniffing.

It was from that conversation and from the introduction to several of the dogs’ handlers, those men and women bonded to these unique soldiers, that I slowly began to understand what a unique relationship was born of this union. I learned how handlers and their dogs sleep together, train together, play together, and even eat together. I heard one phrase over and over again, both out in that sandbox of Iraq but also upon interviewing handlers here in the States: It runs down the lead.

This describes better than anything that unique bond, how over time the emotions of handler and dog run up and down the leash that link the pair, tying them intimately together to the point that both dog and handler can read each other without a command being spoken.

As a veterinarian, I had been taught all manner of dynamics known as the human-animal bond, but I had never seen it so perfectly realized than when watching a handler work his four-legged companion in the sands of Iraq, that synchronicity of action, the respect shining in a handler’s eyes, that wriggling joy in a dog given praise for a job well done. I knew somehow I wanted to try to capture that relationship in print, both to honor these unique soldiers, but also to bring their story to life.

My own dogs (Photo courtesy James Rollins)
My own dogs, siblings Echo and Duncan, left, and Penny. (Photo courtesy James Rollins)

So the characters of Captain Tucker Wayne and his stalwart war dog Kane were born. In the Tucker Wayne books featuring this dynamic duo, I purposefully chose to write scenes from Kane’s point of view, to put my readers into those four paws. By drawing from my prior veterinary knowledge and from the insight gained by interviewing handlers, I hoped to allow my readers to experience that intimate bond from both ends of the leash. Because it’s true: When it comes to understanding the emotional depth of this bond, it certainly does run down the lead.

War Hawk, the latest installment in the Tucker Wayne series by James Rollins and Grant Blackwood, is in stores now.

About the author: James Rollins is the New York Times bestselling author of international thrillers that have been translated into more than 40 languages. He lives in Sacramento, California, with his family, including three Golden Retrievers, 14-year-old Penny and 3-year-old siblings, Echo and Duncan.

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