Photographer Dick Durrance encourages support of active duty troops

This image shows a soldier with a stack of envelopes, calling out recipients' names.

Dick Durrance served as an Army photographer during the Vietnam era. Today, at age 75, Durrance is on a mission—to raise public awareness about the challenges of serving in a combat environment. Through photos and speaking engagements, he shares words of wisdom on how people can support today’s military. His recent TEDxTalk brought 5,000 people to their feet.

This black and white image shows Durrance sitting in a bunker with a camera in his lap.
Dick Durrance II, Army Specialist 4th class, sits in a Camp Evans bunker, March 1968. The Army issued him a Rolleiflex Twin Lens Reflex which shot medium format 120 mm film. He also carried a 35mm Nikon F camera. (Photo courtesy of Dick Durrance)

As you’ll see in the interview below, his family has a tie to the 10th Mountain Division, Camp Hale, Colorado. MWDTSA’s Q1-2018 care packages are commemorating the 75th anniversary of Camp Hale, and we were excited to learn about the Durrance connection.

Kennel Talk (KT): Tell us about your role in the Army.

Dick Durrance: I served in the Department of Army Special Photographic Office. Based at Fort Shafter, Hawaii, I shipped out for three months at a time to take pictures for the Pentagon in Thailand, Vietnam (twice), and Korea. My assignments ranged from photographing equipment, facilities, and terrain to documenting combat missions. The Pentagon used these pictures to brief the President on military activities in Southeast Asia in 1967 and 1968.

KT: Did you ever have a chance to photograph military working dogs?

Durrance shot this photo of the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea. The image shows a harsh, uninviting landscape.
Many of Durrance’s assignments involved photographing terrain and military assets for the Pentagon. Pictured here: Command Post 250 on the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a heavily patrolled border separating North and South Korea. (Photo by Dick Durrance)

Durrance: Just once, and the experience left me with a lifelong fear of German Shepherds. While in the Korea DMZ, I received an assignment to photograph the canines. I was young and dumb at the time. One of the dogs was on a 30-foot chain attached to a stake. I had the idea of kneeling 33 feet from the dog and setting the camera focus at three feet. I signaled the handler to release the dog to ‘attack’ me. The canine bounded toward me with alarming speed, barking ferociously and baring its fangs. Through my lens, all I could see was mouth. He hit the end of the chain, way too close for comfort.

KT: Your dad, also named Dick Durrance, was a famous ski racer. What was his relation to the 10th Mountain Division?

Durrance: When Minnie Dole was selling the idea of creating the 10th Mountain Division, the military had one question. Would it be better to train marksmen how to ski, or teach skiers how to shoot? The military said to my dad, “We want to send you a company of soldiers who don’t ski and see if you can train them to ski.” They were a test case. Could top skiers in Alta, Utah train neophytes to ski in a reasonable amount of time?

The answer was a resounding NO. After about three months, roughly a third of the skiers had broken their legs. At the time, there were no quick-release bindings. Those had not been invented yet. This failed experiment led the military to conclude they needed to recruit seasoned skiers and teach them how to shoot.

For anyone who’s interested, there’s a chapter about my dad’s Alta experience in his memoir, The Man on the Medal.

KT: On Veterans Day 2017, you gave a TedXMileHigh Talk, and then subsequently took part in an interview with Colorado Public Radio about your time in Vietnam. Here are some of the pearls you shared…

  • Going through basic training, you asked yourself, “Am I ready for this? I’m about to be melted down and recast as a warrior and handed to the President to do with as he wishes.”
  • “If you saw someone as a mother’s son or a little boy’s father, could you pull the trigger?”
  • As you photographed your first firefight, you felt “startled by how loud it was. The roar of the tanks. The boom of the big guns. The rat-tat-tat of machine guns. Deafening and disorienting.”
  • Grappling with what you had just witnessed, you realized you were “going to have to suck it up and somehow come to terms with the fear that comes from fighting.”
  • You noted, “I did it for a day and I was rattled. Those guys did it for a year. What did that do to their minds?”
  • “One of the riflemen in the unit said to me, ‘Dick, there is no more hellish dilemma that we face than taking aim at somebody and not knowing whether they are a friend or a foe. Do you pull the trigger or not? And if you are wrong, how do you deal with that?’”

Timeless advice

Durrance: It’s hard to convey what combat is like. Through sharing my photos, I hope to give people a fuller sense of what soldiers go through and how it affects them.

If we are to appreciate what the men and women who are out there fighting right now are doing for us, we have to understand how profound their combat experience is. They risk their lives, face terror, and lose buddies. And when they come home, they somehow have to square what they had to do as warriors to survive with what they are expected to do now. It is not easy.

Durrance photographed the aging handle of a street sewer access lid. The image looks like a pair of square eyes, haunted with pain.
“I was walking in Carbondale, Colorado, when suddenly, I noticed square eyes peering at me from the pavement. It was only an access lid to a street sewer, but I felt I was staring into my psyche,” recalls Durrance. (Photo by Dick Durrance)

Even 49 years after returning from Southeast Asia, I will see something random, such as the handle of a manhole cover, which jogs a memory from Vietnam. It will remind me of the guilt I felt when I pushed civilian values aside.

I encourage people to think of every day as Veteran’s Day. Put a couple minutes aside to appreciate what our service members are doing for us every day. Try to understand what they are going through and how it’s affecting them. And what I hope you never forget is that when war goes into a service member’s mind and heart, it never leaves.

KT: As we aim to support today’s service members, what are your thoughts about letters and care packages?

Durrance: At basic training, I remember how lonely I felt being unplugged from family and friends. Mail call was a chance to touch base with loved ones. It was a connection to an outside world that was seeming further and further away. At the same time, we knew our family and friends had no idea of the military world. They were remembering us as we were, having no idea of what we were becoming.

This photo, taken by Dick Durrance during basic training, shows a soldier with a stack of envelopes, calling out recipients' names.
“Mail call in basic training and throughout our tours of duty was a vital link to our lives back home,” says Durrance. (Photo by Dick Durrance)

It’s important to take the time to reach out. It’s also important to try to step into the shoes of these servicemen and women in an effort to understand their world.

Many thanks to Dick Durrance for sharing his experiences and insights with Kennel Talk.

Join the conversation by adding a comment below. If you’ve been deployed, what do you want civilians to know about your experience? How can family and friends best support active duty personnel, as well as combat veterans who are now back home?

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MWDTSA supports military working dog teams (dog plus handler) deployed in conflict zones overseas. To donate toward a care package for these intrepid teams, visit https://mwdtsa.org/donate/.

To order a copy of Dick Durrance’s 1988 book, Where War Lives: A Photographic Journal of Vietnam, send a check for $20 to Dick Durrance, Post Office Box 1268, Carbondale, CO 81623. Make sure to include your mailing address, email address, and phone number when placing your order. Also, he has copies of his father’s memoir, The Man on the Medal, available for $45 each (the price includes postage).

49th Engineer Detachment Dogs Deployed

Sgt. Garret Grenier, a dog handler, and Staff Sgt. Drake, a mine-detection dog, seek out "mines."
Sgt. Garrett Grenier, a dog handler, and Staff Sgt. Drake, a mine-detection dog, enjoy a game of fetch before training at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, Jan. 8, 2013.
Sgt. Garrett Grenier, a dog handler, and Staff Sgt. Drake, a mine-detection dog, enjoy a game of fetch before training at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, Jan. 8, 2013.

Grenier and Drake are both attached to the 49th Engineer Detachment (mine dogs) and train daily pending weather and mission tempo. The handlers warm up their dogs with games of tug-of-war and fetch to get them into the training mindset.

Sgt. Brian Curd, a dog handler, shows Staff Sgt. Allen, a mine-detection dog, some affection after a training session at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, Jan. 8, 2013.
Sgt. Brian Curd, a dog handler, shows Staff Sgt. Allen, a mine-detection dog, some affection after a training session at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, Jan. 8, 2013.

Curd and Allen are both with the 49th Engineer Detachment (mine dogs) based out of Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., and deployed to detect mines for line units and clear minefields for expansion.

Sgt. Garret Grenier, a dog handler, gives Staff Sgt. Drake, a mine-detection dog, his favorite toy as a reward after a successful training session at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, Jan. 8, 2013.
Sgt. Garret Grenier, a dog handler, gives Staff Sgt. Drake, a mine-detection dog, his favorite toy as a reward after a successful training session at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, Jan. 8, 2013.

Drake and Grenier are members of the 49th Engineer Detachment (mine dogs). A military working dog’s rank is always higher than its handler in order to promote the welfare of the animal. If the handler abuses the dog, he can be punished for hurting a superior noncommisioned officer.

Photo Credit: Sgt. Christopher Bonebrake, 115th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

More photos of Fons to go with article in September issue of Kennel Talk

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Cailin walking Fons
Cailin walking Fons

Fons’ new playmate is proud that she can walk her dog in heel position.

Fons denies he drank the milk....I'm innocent

What milk?  I don’t remember seeing any milk.

Fons with his KONG toy

Fons wouldn’t leave his KONG toy.  He couldn’t believe he could have it whenever he wanted.

Fort Benning Retirements 097

Last morning at the military kennel before Fons headed to his new home.

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Hubby loved playing with these dogs.  A special new KONG toy for a special new life in retirement.

49th Mine Dog Detection Detachment in Afghanistan

U.S. Army Spc. Adam Zettel, with the 49th Mine Dog Detection Detachment, and Allan, a mine detection dog, search a compound for unexploded ordnance

U.S. Army Spc. Adam Zettel, with the 49th Mine Dog Detection Detachment, and Allan, a mine detection dog, search a compound for unexploded ordnance in Qalat, Zabul province, Afghanistan, April 18, 2011. The team was asked to perform a ground sweep of the compound prior to the start of a forward operating base (FOB) expansion project for FOB Smart, which is home to Zabul Provincial Reconstruction Team. (U.S. Air Force photo by 1st Lt. Brian Wagner/Released)

10th Mountain Division

I fell in love with this photo of members of the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan. The 10th of Fort Drum NY has an interesting history of training to acclimate in the event of mountain warfare. In this photo U.S. Soldiers, from the 10th Mountain Division, a K-9 unit, alongside Soldiers from the 4th Brigade Combat Tream 25th Infantry Division, Focus Targeting Force, use a Military Working Dog to track down suspected insurgents, during an air assault mission to capture insurgent personnel in the Ghanzi province of Afghanistan, July 17, 2009. (US Army phoito by Spc. Matthew Freire/Released.) I can’t help but believe some of our Combat Tracker dog handlers from Vietnam will see their work as a foundation for these current tracking dogs Seek on, track on.

The Dogs

Military Working Dog Dag sits in a shady spot, with his tennis ball, after completing a successful tracking exercise, at Joint Security Station Loyalty, in eastern Baghdad, Iraq, May 15, 2009. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. James Selesnick/Released)
Military Working Dog Dag sits in a shady spot, with his tennis ball, after completing a successful tracking exercise, at Joint Security Station Loyalty, in eastern Baghdad, Iraq, May 15, 2009. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. James Selesnick/Released)

We know how smart they are. They prove it daily, through rigorous training, weary missions, and amazing successes. And, while the handlers are the leaders of the team, they know very well that the dogs possess talents that people cannot duplicate. We know how smart they are, how dedicated, how loyal…but have you ever sat back to watch the eyes of a working dog? Intense, honest and inseeing. We have four dogs posted today for all to enjoy. Earlier this year, Military Working Dog, Dag, found a shady spot to sit and contemplate his tennis ball – a reward to a successful tracking mission. Photo by SSG James Selesnick.

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Stacey Harrington and Military Working Dog Ggabbi conduct a search of the neighborhood activities center prior to a business development seminar in the Gazaliyah district, Baghdad, Iraq, Sept. 21, 2008. Bryson and Warren are in Green Platoon, Bravo Troop, 1st Squadron, 75th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Charles W. Gill/Released)
U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Stacey Harrington and Military Working Dog Ggabbi conduct a search of the neighborhood activities center prior to a business development seminar in the Gazaliyah district, Baghdad, Iraq, Sept. 21, 2008. Bryson and Warren are in Green Platoon, Bravo Troop, 1st Squadron, 75th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Charles W. Gill/Released)
U.S. Army military working dog, Andy, sits alertly during a pre-mission briefing for Iraqi and U.S. Soldiers participating in a joint operation with the Iraqi Army and U.S. Soldiers of 5th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, in Rusafa, eastern Baghdad, Iraq, Feb. 28, 2009. The Soldiers are searching for weapons caches and targeted insurgents. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. James Selesnick/Released)
U.S. Army military working dog, Andy, sits alertly during a pre-mission briefing for Iraqi and U.S. Soldiers participating in a joint operation with the Iraqi Army and U.S. Soldiers of 5th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, in Rusafa, eastern Baghdad, Iraq, Feb. 28, 2009. The Soldiers are searching for weapons caches and targeted insurgents. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. James Selesnick/Released)

Also taken by SSG Selsnick is the photo of Andy, sitting alertly during a pre-mission briefing in eastern Baghdad. Andy spent the day looking for weapons caches and insurgents. MWD Ggabbi is photographed while conducting a search of a neighborhood in Baghdad last year. Her photo was taken by Spc. Charles W. Gill. And, lastly, we have the beautiful Kandy, another Army dog attached to the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne. Kandy is paying attention during a pre-departure briefing. Kandy was also photographed by SSG Selesncik, who is an awesome MWD photographer.

We owe a debt of gratitude.

jestes_rebel_field_bwz Combat Tracker LabIt is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words. For me, sometimes it’s even more than that.
Years ago, even before 9-11, as I started to learn about the role of Military Working Dogs in Vietnam, I ran into a couple of photos posted on a website that were just so compelling to me that I felt that I had to get involved. Both photos were of dogs and handlers from the 47th Infantry Platoon Scout Dog in Vietnam. The one that I have permission to use is attached. If you look at the photo, the face of the young man and the dog reveal tomes about being in a war.

I have been honored to have an opportunity to meet this young man, who is now many years older, at a reunion at Fort Benning back in 2002. And, although I told him then that a great deal of my passion for this work started with the connection I felt to that photo, I’m not sure he really fully understood. It haunted me.

Olivia, a military working dog, sleeps next to her trainer inside a U.S. Army Stryker after a morning of conducting vehicle searches in Mosul, Iraq, Oct. 19, 2006, in support of a joint U.S.- Iraqi army mission. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Michele A. Desrochers) (Released)
Olivia, a military working dog, sleeps next to her trainer inside a U.S. Army Stryker after a morning of conducting vehicle searches in Mosul, Iraq, Oct. 19, 2006, in support of a joint U.S.- Iraqi army mission. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Michele A. Desrochers) (Released)

Equally compelling is the photo of a dog handler following the lead of a labrador retriever through the dangerous waters of Vietnam. Following this dog team are the remaining members of a Combat Tracker Team.

If we fast forward to our current missions and operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’ve been lucky to have received and uncovered many wonderful photos over the years. But again, but a few really stand out to me as photos that tell a full and valuable story about how two friends, one human and one canine, can combine into a force mulitiplier and make the world safer for all of us. Yes we do owe them all a debt of gratitude, but I think in these simple and straightforward photos you will clearly see the love that runs up and down that leash, the commitment to the mission and the unique work and nature of a military working dog and his handler. I think you’ll see it if you look with your heart. As one of my all time favorite books Le Petit Prince is quoted, “On ne voit bien, qu’avec le coeur.” One only truly sees with the heart. If you open your heart, it’s all so hard to miss.

A U.S. Marine and military working dog Marty take a break as they conduct training for the Lioness Program at Camp Korean Village, Iraq, Nov. 30, 2006. The program uses female Marines to conduct security searches of women who may not be comfortable having amale search them. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Jennifer L. Jones) (Released)
A U.S. Marine and military working dog Marty take a break as they conduct training for the Lioness Program at Camp Korean Village, Iraq, Nov. 30, 2006. The program uses female Marines to conduct security searches of women who may not be comfortable having amale search them. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Jennifer L. Jones) (Released)

Dog handlers, past and present we salute you all! Stay safe.

Dixie

Photo credits:

Olivia, a military working dog, sleeps next to her trainer inside a U.S. Army Stryker after a morning of conducting vehicle searches in Mosul,. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Michele A. Desrochers) (Released)

A U.S. Marine and military working dog, Marty. take a break as they conduct training. f. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Jennifer L. Jones) (Released)

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Russell McLaughlin, takes a moment to scratch the back of his military working dog after the completion of a raid in the village of Tall Qabb village, Kirkuk province, Iraq.. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Samuel

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Maurice Hoffman, a K-9 military working dog handler attached to the 10th Mountain Division, rests with his working dog after a cordon and search in the village of Al Kahn in Kirkuk, Iraq,. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Samuel Bendet) (Released)

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Russell McLaughlin, a K-9 dog handler attached to the U.S. Army's 25th Infantry Division, takes a moment to scratch the back of his military working dog after the completion of a raid in the village of Tall Qabb village, Kirkuk province, Iraq, Dec. 8, 2006. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Samuel Bendet) (Released)
U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Russell McLaughlin, a K-9 dog handler attached to the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division, takes a moment to scratch the back of his military working dog after the completion of a raid in the village of Tall Qabb village, Kirkuk province, Iraq, Dec. 8, 2006. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Samuel Bendet) (Released)