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).

Attention dog lovers: $10,000 grant at stake

Photo of military working dog with flower

In honor of your favorite dog, you can help MWDTSA win a $10,000 grant. We just need your vote. Once a day, every day, between now and the end of the contest.

Sugarlands Distilling Co. in Gatlinburg, Tennessee will be giving away six grants to nonprofits, and we’re in the running. Here’s the way it works:

  • Please visit moonshare.org every 24 hours. Voting resets each night at midnight.
  • Click on our MWDTSA logo and scroll down to the bottom of the page to enter your e-mail address and cast your vote.
  • Bookmark the URL and set a reminder to visit every day until the end of the month.

To get to round #2, we need your help!

The competition started with 48 nonprofits vying for the six grants. On January 10, Sugarlands cut the field in half, based on the number of votes each organization had received. We made that cut!

On January 20, they will again cut the field in half, and we hope to be one of the 12 remaining contenders.

Voting will continue until the end of the month, when Sugarlands will announce the six winners.

What the grant means for MWDTSA

As you know, we send nearly 200 care packages per quarter to military working dog teams deployed in conflict zones overseas. Army. Navy. Air Force. Marines. Coast Guard. In 2017 alone, we spent over $12,000 on postage to ship these boxes. The Moonshare grant would cover more than 80 percent of our anticipated 2018 postage bill. That would be a huge blessing!

Please share this post with your family and friends. Our diligent military working dog teams will appreciate your support! Best of all, it costs nothing to vote, except a few seconds of your time each day. Thanks for your help!

To learn more about MWDTSA, visit https://mwdtsa.org/.

Co-written with Nikki Rohrig, President, MWDTSA

Photo credit: Rachel Longo

Dogs with Altitude: Gearing up for Q1-2018 care packages

Graphic design for Q1 care package honors the World War II dogs of the 10th Mountain Division.

For the first time in its eleven-year history, MWDTSA will be assembling its quarterly care packages in Colorado, for shipment to dogs and handlers in conflict zones around the world. Each quarter, we decide a theme and build the boxes around that motif. Pirates, ice hockey, superheroes, and football are a few recent examples. Our Q1 packing team brainstormed various Colorado themes. Snow sports, mining, mountains, or simply “With Love from Colorado.” In the end, though, we landed on “Dogs with Altitude: 75 years of faithful service.” We’re honoring the 75th anniversary of the nation’s formal MWD program and Colorado’s role in the earliest MWD training efforts.

U.S. military dogs before 1942

Dogs have helped soldiers around the world, dating back millennia. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and other groups utilized canines for defense and more. There are stories of American dogs in the Civil War and World War I. However, there was no formal U.S. war dog program until 75 years ago.

Starting in the late 1930s, enthusiastic civilian breeders and dog lovers volunteered to train and supply canines for U.S. military use. In The Quiet Americans, author Tracy English writes, “One of the most famous groups was ‘Dogs for Defense.’ They came into being immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Along with help from the American Kennel Club, the group aimed…to develop a large trained canine force for use in civilian plants and in the Army if the call ever came.”

Army pulls the war dog program in-house

The military’s need for canines, however, quickly outpaced Dogs for Defense’s ability to deliver. The problem involved more than inability to meet a numeric quota. According to uswardogs.org, “an Army inspection in June (1942), three months after the program began, revealed that the dogs in training had made little progress. This was due largely to the fact that available instructors generally were inexperienced in teaching sentry dogs. They were unfamiliar with military conditions. Most of them specialized in preparing animals for routine obedience tests or field trail work. Another striking weakness of the program was the failure to teach men to handle the dogs. This defect was due primarily to the fact that the Army did not make enlisted personnel available for this purpose.”

As a result of this inspection, “the Army transferred control of the procurement and training of dogs to the Remount Branch, Service Installations Division in June 1942,” explains English. “Previously, the Remount Branch had responsibility for procuring horses and mules for military service. So, they were in good condition to switch up their procedures to procure dogs. The first large request for dogs came from Camp Hale in Colorado. They wanted over 100 dogs for use as messenger, sledge and scout dogs.”

Dogs with the 10th Mountain Division

With the transfer of the dog program to the Remount Branch, the Army embarked on developing a new canine training program during the summer of 1942. The dogs at Camp Hale and their soldier-handlers were among the first MWD teams to take part in the new training, in field conditions.

At 9,200-feet in elevation, with surrounding areas climbing to over 12,000-feet, the Army built Camp Hale to prepare soldiers for wintry, high-altitude combat in Europe. According to ColoradoEncyclopedia.org, “the U.S. Army’s first and only Mountain Infantry Division took shape at Camp Hale over the winter of 1942–43. All the troops arrived at Camp Hale by January 1943. The valley buzzed with the activity of thousands of soldiers training for war. At its height, the camp had more than 1,000 buildings and housed about 15,000 troops.”

Photo of handler and dog from Camp Hale, circa 1943-1944.
Fully equipped mountain trooper and dog, circa 1943-1944. WWII soldiers did not have the benefit of today’s technical fabrics, so staying warm was a greater challenge. Credit: Denver Public Library, Western History Collection, call number TMD351-2017-255.

Man’s best friends boost morale

The encyclopedia entry goes on to say, “enlisted men learned how to survive in winter conditions and fight in the mountains. They practiced skiing, snowshoeing, and technical mountain climbing. Training was hard, requiring marches and maneuvers with heavy packs at high altitude. Soldiers often suffered from altitude sickness, frostbite, and low morale worsened by a lack of nearby entertainment options.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the dogs serving at Camp Hale did more than just their day-to-day work. They provided a much-needed morale boost and occasional comic relief amidst the harsh training conditions.

Our Q1-2018 care packages will commemorate these early teams and Colorado’s MWD heritage. MWDTSA is honored to celebrate the legacy of these intrepid handlers and dogs—75 years strong.

If you would like to contribute items for the care packages or donate toward postage, visit MWDTSA.org for more information on how you can help.

(A version of this piece originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Kennel Talk.)

Happy New Year from MWDTSA’s Kennel Talk!

Each year, January 1 feels like a present.

A fresh start. A chance to launch new initiatives that build on the prior year’s successes, as we endeavor to support both ends of the leash.

To kick off 2018…

We are excited to introduce a change in our award-winning monthly newsletter Kennel Talk.

We will be migrating from a PDF newsletter to a blog format over the next few weeks, a transition that will yield several benefits. First, we can post news stories right away, instead of waiting for the next monthly issue. You’ll get smaller bites of content more frequently.

Second, our content will be more easily sharable on social media and faster to locate in internet searches. Third, we can produce content in a more streamlined manner, freeing up volunteer time for other MWDTSA activities such as fundraising events and base visits. And lastly, a blog is more interactive. We hope you’ll comment, discuss, ask questions, and share ideas for articles you’d like to see.

Looking ahead to Q1-2018 care packages…

The 12 months from June 2017 to June 2018 mark the 75th anniversary of our nation’s formal military working dog program. MWDTSA’s Q1-2018 care packages will commemorate this 75th anniversary, and we are eager to share anecdotes from 1942 and 1943 with you in the coming weeks.

Stay tuned for the tale of Bruno St. Bernard of the famed 10th Mountain Division, Camp Hale, World War II. 🙂

We thank you for your support and look forward to journeying with you all over the world in 2018,

Anna Steere and Leigh Steere, MWDTSA volunteers

 

Join the conversation! What military working dog topics would you like to read about in 2018?

 

 

Lucca K458 More photos to accompany Kennel Talk story in September issue

Lucca and Chris on a search and knock

Photos immediately above and below by SrA Eric Harris.

U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Chris Willingham, assigned to the U.S. Army's 2nd Special Troops Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, rewards his dog, Lucca
U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Chris Willingham, assigned to the U.S. Army’s 2nd Special Troops Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, rewards his dog, Lucca, after finding a training aid in a training house at Camp Diwaniyah, Iraq, Feb. 18, 2009. Willingham and his fellow dog handlers joined soldiers from the 8th Division Iraqi Army for a training day in order to help the Iraqi soldiers get comfortable working with dogs. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Eric Harris/Released)

Lucca at the beach

Lucca’s new life.

Rodriguez Lucca and Willingham a

Lucca and the two important men in her life.

Lucca enjoying the gardens

Lucca exploring her new life.

These photos are additional photos that go with the story about Lucca in the September issue of Kennel Talk. If you haven’t received your copy, you may register for a free subscription at www.mwdtsa.org