While Veterans Day typically conjures up images of gray hair, cemeteries, and the flag flying through fall leaves, maybe our minds should make room for a different kind of combat soldier.
Because some heroes have four legs.
HBO's hourlong documentary, War Dog: A Soldier's Best Friend, widens the definition of "veteran" in telling the stories of several real-life military special operations service dogs. Executive producer Channing Tatum's film, honors American dogs of war by highlighting their heroism, their surprising humanity, and the deep bond they forge with their handlers. And these dog-soldiers continue to serve after the bullets stop flying.
The documentary principally follows three female dogs, all specially bred Belgian Malinois: Layka, Mika, and Pepper. They're the best of the best, selected for America's elite special operations community. A privilege, this fact also carries a cost: the combat these canines saw was frightening, vicious, and, in at least one case, lethal.
Viewers get an inside view of their training and the risk the dogs take to protect their handlers and fellow soldiers on dangerous missions. One dog mentioned in passing, Benno, was killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2012. His handler reported that at Benno's cremation ceremony, he saw many people in attendance shedding tears. He explained, they "weren't crying at a dog, they were upset at a soldier dying."
Another dog in the film experienced post-traumatic stress from the shock of combat and the wounding of her handler. She had to retire to police work.
The dogs are exceptional at their jobs, and some even have more deployments under their collars than soldiers do under their belts.
We also see these dogs as equal parts violent pursuer and huggable animal. One vet said "to be a dog that can attack people and be so affectionate is amazing." Another handler described, she'll "lick on the kid's faces and then turn around and bite suspects." Yet another handler, describing another dog, called her "a lapdog who became a beast of fury on target."
Secretary of Defense James Mattis once famously described an American war-fighter as "No better friend, no worse enemy." Watching War Dog, you get the sense Mattis was talking about these four-legged soldiers.
And, as Mattis suggested, war is the place you need friends the most. Maybe that's why these dogs are so often considered human. After explaining his dog was a big fan of the television show "Gray's Anatomy," one handler said of his dog, "she's not a dog. She's a person." To another: "she's a human to us."
Human or not, these dogs continue to serve after combat, during what one veteran described on camera as "the war after the war that you don't know is coming." As the film unfolds, it becomes clear that the dogs were a post-war salve for these guys. One said that if his dog is "not struggling then I'm not struggling." In a way, he looks up to his canine companion.
I know how this feels. After my time in combat, I had a rough few years and a friend recommended getting a Boston terrier. He told me this ridiculous story about being home for Christmas, his entire family in the dining room. Someone went to the bathroom, walked across the living room, past the tree, and found their 14-year-old Boston's eye had popped out and was dangling from the socket (How, you ask? It's a mystery to this day.) After an emergency vet visit, the dog lived another year with an eye sewn shut.
After a story like that, it was hard to forget about Boston terriers. I looked the breed up and learned they've got a distinct martial lineage. A Boston named "Sergeant Stubby" is widely recognized as the most decorated war dog of World War I, having fought in 17 battles.
That's when I found Mickey. He's short, stocky, sleeps and snores, and he's just sort of always there. Before my wife and girls came along, we spent more time together than we do now. But he's always been a comfort.
Maybe they aren't precisely people. Maybe they aren't exactly human. Maybe they aren't like other veterans.
But they do serve and they do sacrifice. And they do it with an American flag on their collars, even beyond the battlefield. That sounds like a veteran worth honoring to me.
Major ML Cavanaugh is an Army Strategist, a Non Resident Fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, and looks forward to connecting via Twitter @MLCavanaugh. This essay is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government.