‘Glory Hounds’ brings stories of four-legged heroes to TV
By Jeanne Jakle, Express-News columnist
A San Antonio soldier and his precious dog are featured in a truly compelling, real-life war story that kept me on the edge of my chair, glued to the screen and reaching for a box of tissues.
That’s how suspenseful, harrowing and moving some of the footage from Afghanistan gets in an unusual TV special, which debuts at 7 p.m. Thursday.
Don’t go looking for “Glory Hounds” in the expected places — Discovery, History, CNN or PBS — however. You’ll find it on Animal Planet, which may seem an unlikely TV network for a war tale, if it weren’t for some of the heroes showcased.
I’m talking heroes of the four-legged kind, dogs that are trained to protect soldiers and innocent civilians in war zones. At the Department of Defense Military Working Dog Program, located at Joint Base San Antonio–Lackland, canines are specifically schooled to do what humans and technology can’t: use their keen sense of smell to sniff out explosives and track insurgents.
According to Animal Planet, the channel’s filmmakers and embedded camera crews obtained unprecedented access to dog-and-handler teams in some of the most dangerous regions of Afghanistan. The result is “Glory Hounds,” which follows four such teams as they warily seek out the Taliban’s weapon of choice: improvised explosive devices, which are hidden randomly in the sand. What makes these two hours different is, instead of dramatizations, we get real footage, some of which can prove rattling.
One powerful segment follows 29-year-old Air Force Tech Sgt. Len Anderson, currently stationed at Lackland here, and his teammate Azza, a veteran Belgian Malinois trained to detect bombs.
“To be honest, Azza saved my life,” Anderson, who was injured and lost six fingers in a surprise blast triggered remotely by an insurgent, said in a phone chat. If it hadn’t been for his dog’s signals that something was amiss, he explained, “I wouldn’t have stopped walking. I would’ve kept on … and would have ended up standing on top of it and not be here today talking to you.”
As we see in the documentary, Anderson also owes his life to a brave cameraman — Craig Constant. While recording the mission, Constant suddenly became part of the story. We watch as he drops his camera to do what’s necessary to save the injured soldier and make him as comfortable as possible while waiting for the medics.
“He really stepped up to the plate,” Anderson said. “His was the only voice I remember hearing that day.”
Also providing comfort was the badly shaken Azza, who couldn’t take her eyes off her beloved handler as he lay in the dust. As Constant puts it in the film, the bond between Anderson and Azza “is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen between an animal and a man.”
“Azza eventually came up while they were giving me care,” Anderson recalled. “She lay down right beside me … actually on top of me. For her to understand, to know this will help me make it and mourn for me … I can’t even put it into words how strong and deep it (that bond) runs.”
After receiving hospital care, Anderson was flown back to his former home of Alaska, where he was surrounded by wife Kelley and two small children. He’s been at Lackland, he said, since August, first in the hospital, then at Fisher House, and now he’s settling with his family in a home in Converse.
He recently had his injured hand amputated.
“I’m doing good,” Anderson said. “I’ve already been practicing with the prosthetic. But it’s a waiting game.”
Waiting beside him is Azza, who has since been officially adopted by Anderson.
Was she hurt by the blast?
“She has some PTSD issues, night dreams, night terrors, don’t know the state of her eardrums,” he said. “Still, we really don’t know how she didn’t sustain more injuries; the bomb went off right between us.”
Though their war story has a relatively happy ending, this isn’t true of all the tales in the special; one, in fact, may break your heart, as it did mine.
On the upside, I especially loved the poetic verses about dogs and their special relationship to humans that begin each new chapter. “Glory Hounds” is truly inspirational TV, particularly if you have your own beloved hound at home.