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).

Sgt. William (Billy) Soutra and his Specialized Search Dog, Posha F738

Sgt. William (Billy) Soutra and his Specialized Search Dog, Posha F738

In July of 2010, the Helmund River valley near Nahr-e Saraj, Afghanistan, was an immensely volatile Taliban stronghold. One Special Forces Operator reported casualties in 18 of the 19 missions run by his unit. This was where Sgt. William (Billy) Soutra and his Specialized Search Dog, Posha F738, along with other members of their Special Forces Team, were inserted via helicopter to begin a mission to capture an insurgent bomb factory and clear out a Taliban command post.

Once Posha was on the ground, his nose immediately honed in on certain odors, finding two pressure plate bombs; Posha then began sniffing for booby traps around a weapons cache. As Posha and Soutra began this search, the Taliban exploded into a ferocious ambush; the fighting lasted two days. During those 48 hours, Soutra and Posha exhibited exquisite Marine heroism and resourcefulness, resulting in the awarding of a Navy Cross for dog handler Soutra and three Silver Stars for other members of his unit. The Navy Cross, presented December 2012, is the second highest award for combat valor and the highest ever awarded a dog handler who was secured to his dog during the action for which he received the commendation.

The official Department of Defense news release uses phrases such as "moving exposed down the line," "rushed into the kill zone," "pinned down," "flurries of insurgent machine gun and mortar fire" and noted that in the end, "they had destroyed the bomb factory, and had killed approximately 50 enemy fighters."

Soutra's version talks more about his partner, Posha. The Marine states clearly that half of the Navy Cross belongs to his best friend, a solid black male German shepherd dog with wonky ears, an affable personality and a brilliance and steadfastness that are hallmarks of this splendid breed. "Posha made me the Marine I am today."

Billy could not give enough accolades to his dog. "During all of the gunfire, as we moved into the firefight, he didn't hesitate, he didn't cower, he did everything exactly when and how I did it for two straight days. If he had faltered or balked at any point, it could have been different." He added, "He always reacted the same way. He saved my life."

On a previous deployment to Iraq in 2009, Soutra and Posha's teamwork was so precise and seamless that, in a rare event, the Marines meritoriously promoted Soutra to Sergeant and by extension, Posha to SSgt.

While Posha made it through the second combat deployment, he later succumbed to cancer and was euthanized in 2011. His loss was particularly difficult for his handler. "It's been a year now, but it still hurts when I think about how he got cancer and had to be put down."

Posha's ashes rest in an urn in a place of honor at Soutra's bedside. If Soutra has his way, his German shepherd hero who is now buried in his heart will one day be buried with him. "That way, we will always be together."

Dog handler Soutra wrote the following memorial to his K9 partner, after Posha's death.

"I wish I could tell you that it's going to be okay, but the truth is you've always been the one to pave the way.

You were always two steps ahead making sure that the paths we traveled were safe.

And although you've done enough already, I ask that you still watch over me, making sure the roads I travel without you are safe."

MWDTSA is honored to have supported this team.

Sergeant William "Billy" Soutra was awarded the Navy Cross at Camp Pendleton, CA on December 3, 2012. Click play, below, to listen to the audio portion of his DOD interview. The full (public domain) video interview can be viewed at http://www.dvidshub.net/video/192339/interviews-with-secretary-navy-and-silver-star-recipient#.Uc3abZxZ7Kc .

 

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Picture Yourself as a MWDTSA Volunteer

Jan Slotar holding up a picture frame so you can picture yourself as a volunteer!

New Year~~New You

Volunteers are how we roll. Would you like to get involved but don’t know how? Let us show you how easy it can be to become part of our MWDTSA Team and why it may be just the thing for you.

As an all volunteer organization, volunteers are the lifeblood of everything we do. That means that each individual who volunteers with MWDTSA contributes to the support we provide to our military working dog teams. Each year, we successfully ship care packages, complete base visits and recognition events, educate the general public and advocate on behalf of retired dogs.

The help you supply is vital. It is real, tangible, and relied upon to help us reach and exceed our goals. Join our dynamic national network of volunteers who donate their time and talent to MWDTSA. Most of our volunteer efforts are virtual, which means you can join us from anywhere in the country and make a real contribution toward furthering our goals. We couldn’t do what we do without dedicated, hard-working, enthusiastic volunteers like you. But, what’s in it for you?

It’s rewarding. Find Meaning and Purpose at Any Age: Sharing what you’ve learned with others can be a rewarding opportunity to give back. It’s a way to show the troops that you support them.

Courtney holding and MWDTSA badgeIt’s good for your health: mental and physical. Experience Improved Health and Well-being: Many people who volunteer say that helping others gives them a good feeling inside. There seems to be an actual physical sensation that occurs when people help others that makes them experience greater energy and strength, less depression and increased feelings of self-worth.

It’s fun and makes you reinvent yourself. Make New Friends and Improve Your Mind: you’ll be meeting and working with people from across the country and varied backgrounds. If you had told me before I started that I’d have learned how to write press releases, communicated with some of the individuals that I have at various levels of the government and made as many friends from all across the military, I would not have believed you. It’s been a blast. Step into our world.

Current Volunteer Needs

Allison and a poinsettia plantWe have a unique and varied need of volunteer work, but we are always looking for motivated volunteers filled with energy and ideas. We could use some help in the following areas:

  • Solicitation of donations for care packages
  • Dog Tagz Online Store Developer/Manager
  • Photography/Videography
  • Writer/Editor—Stories and Articles for newsletter and online
  • Social Media Mogul: Facebook and Twitter
  • In Kind Donation Solicitations
  • Artwork/Graphic Design/T Shirt design and sales
  • Fund Raising
  • Volunteer Coordination and Management
  • Grant writing and much, much more.

We are a small, but mighty non-profit so every ounce of energy is important; know that you can make a powerful difference. When it comes to volunteering, passion and positivity are the only requirements.

Stop by our Volunteer Central Page for more information or to send in a volunteer application: http://www.mwdtsa.org/volunteer.html

Thanks and we look forward to welcoming you to the MWDTSA Volunteer Family.

Walking Post

Duke X601

Walking post was my responsibility, along with the handler the Air Force assigned to me. Heading towards nightfall, we loaded in the back of a deuce and a half and then drove out, with several other teams, to be posted along the perimeter of our Air Base.

My responsibility was serious. I had to stand guard all night long on the stretch of boundary to which I and my human counterpart were assigned. We had to keep the base assets and personnel safe. My handler was also my responsibility. You know, he worked hard, but he had many shortcomings. Lord, he could barely hear the quiet threats of the night and he couldn’t smell a snake if it bit him– which wasn’t an idle threat.

We had maybe 200 x 200 yards to guard, depending on the terrain and conditions. There were things out there in the dark, there really were. Most nights I didn’t worry my handler, too much. We’d walk, endlessly it seemed and then, for a few brief moments, if all seemed well, we might sit to take a load off. My buddy talked a lot about a place called home and I loved to listen to his voice. Home sounded great, I could hardly wait to get there.

My handler was nervous much of the time, but heck, you couldn’t blame him. I mean he was all of 19 and sometimes there were people out there trying to kill us. And the night, well, it does take its toll when you are at war and fear is already in the forefront of your mind. Usually things went smoothly, but every so often, just enough to keep us on our toes, we were challenged. I never failed my challenge, I never failed my country, but most importantly, I never failed my partner.

I know my buddy is anguished still about the time we were in Vietnam. But, he needs to know that I’m still watching over him. I am still his “Guardian of the Night”.

During the Vietnam War, dogs like Duke X601 guarded base personnel and assets at bases across southeast Asia; Vietnam and Thailand.

War Dog Hero

SGT Roye and SSD Bubba

Here’s a photo of SSD Bubba, a Lab, and his handler having some fun during training. Why is it important for a dog to run pell-mell after a ball? Suppose Bubba just found an IED and you want him out of the dangerous area as quickly as possible. Send him out of the area after his ball.

One of Bubba’s compatriots – Labwise, not American-wise – just won a Hero Dog Award. And, we wanted to share this story with you. Thanks to our ever investigative website guru for this link. Follow the link to the story.

http://apnews.myway.com/article/20100224/D9E2K4T02.html

The New Infantry Museum and Columbus, GA

100_1868It has been a challenging year, personally. Job losses for both Hubby and me and the tanking of the economy, taking our 401 K with it. Because of all of the turmoil, we’ve remained relatively homebound for most of the past year. A real change for me. While I have a new job, I haven’t acquired any vacation time yet so was delighted to hear that they closed for the Labor Day holiday. We immediately made plans to go out of town for just a night or two. To get away, have some fun, relax – but still wanted it to be somewhere close so that it didn’t take long to get there and wasn’t terribly expensive. We struggled with Charleston (my first thought), Savannah (our all time favorite city), Chattanooga (been there, done that) etc. At one point I suggested that we go to Columbus and spend time sightseeing. We go to Columbus frequently, but it’s always for War Dog events and we never seem to have time to truly visit the city itself. Hubby was in total agreement as they had just opened up a new Infantry Museum and we were anxious to see what it looked like.

To quasi-quote Billy Crystal “It looked mmmmarvvvvelous.”

100_1869When we arrived at Columbus, our friend Ann reminded us to stop by Dinglewood’s Pharmacy for a “Scrambled Dog” which we did. Then we headed straight for the Civil War Naval Musueum, which is very, very cool. But, the piece-de-resistance was the new Infantry Museum. I’m not sure if Frank Hanner is still the curator or not, but whoever put this museum together did an outstanding job. OMG. We started about as soon as they opened up and finally left at about 4:00 that afternoon- our heads filled with facts, figures and memories AND it’s free. Truly, it is definitely ranking in one of the top ten museums I’ve ever been in and they include the Louvre and the Smithsonian Museums.

100_1860Once we made our way in, the docent advised that our walk into the musuem exhibitions was 100 yards of history. 100 yards being the exact same length on the battlefield that is owned by the Infantry. At that close range, Air Force support and close fire support cannot help. It all has to be handled by the Infantry. There were a couple of items from he old War Dog display, but not as much as I had hoped. However, I was overjoyed to see Col. Nett so prominently shown, along with a wonderful area to honor the men who have earned the Medal of Honor. One of my friends has a brother, Danny K Peterson, who received that honor in Vietnam. It was a very emotional day, but also a fun and educational day. If you have the opportunity, please go. It is a very special museum.

Happy 4th of July

Fort Benning dedication 2007 029 Fort Benning dedication 2007 030

Just some photos to share the emotion of the 4th of July with everyone. Two of the photos are from the War Dog Memorial Rededication at Ft. Benning, GA in 2007. It was a beautiful day wih the flags flying near the memorial. This is a special place for dog handlers where they can gather to remember their dogs, their buddies and their missions. Just a look back to celebrate the heritage and history of War Dogs.

And, a prayer sent to all of those currently in harm’s way that they know those of us back home truly support them, their dogs and their missions. “We are thinking of you guys always, but most especially today, on a day that celebrates the birth of our nation and the meaning of freedom. Stay safe, guys, we love you.”