Megan Leavey – the real-life Marine whose unbreakable bond with a bomb-sniffing German shepherd has been turned into a new movie starring Kate Mara – says her beloved Rex saved countless American lives in Iraq after being written off as a troubled dog.
"He was everybody's kind of secondary dog. His attitude didn't really mix well with a lot of people. So they didn't really bond with him like I did," Leavey told Newsmax TV's Steve Malzberg on Friday.
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Leavey remains a bit stunned that her inspirational story, simply titled "Megan Leavey," is now in theaters across the country, with Mara in the title role, along with Tom Felton, who played Draco Malfoy in the "Harry Potter" movies and Bradford Whitford, the sinister dad in the 2017 horror flick "Get Out."
"I honestly don't even think that it clicked it was real until I saw a movie poster in my movie theater where I go in the mall. And I was like 'wow, I guess this is really happening!'" said Leavey, who lives in the leafy suburbs north of New York City.
Thinking back, Leavey, 33, said it's sometimes hard to believe how much has happened in her young life, which led to the military after the Sept. 11th 2001 terror attack on the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan.
"I graduated high school in 2001. I feel like that had a really big impact on my life being a New Yorker. My father has worked in New York City in whole life. I grew up here," she said.
"I didn't really know what to do, like every probably 18-year-old can relate to. But after that happened it just felt like there was a bigger purpose in the world rather than just going to class. I kind of wanted to be a part of that."
She enlisted in the Marine Corps and trained at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, California, as a military police officer, which is where she met Rex, a scrappy, somewhat standoffish K-9 patrol dog.
"I didn't even know about the K-9 program... I was like ‘I want to do that. I grew up with pets all my life. I had to work really hard to get chosen to go into that program," Leavey told Malzberg.
Rex and Leavey, now 22, were deployed to Iraq where the expertly-trained animal sought out hidden explosives by scent and ended up uncovering many lethal booby-traps which were successfully defused.
It was on her second deployment with Rex that their lives were turned upside down.
"I was with an Army unit that had just gotten into the country so we really didn't know each other too well. They first had asked for two dog teams and then they could only fit one of us in, so I volunteered to go being the senior Marine," she recalled.
"It was during the day time. It was super-hot. We had been in an area that no one had been in in a long time. Rex of course found a lot of things buried.
"But we were being watched from afar and got ambushed. They detonated an IED [improvised explosive device] under Rex and I. I was knocked unconscious.... The Army guys couldn't even find me because there was so much dust and confusion."
Then came the terrifying moment when Leavey awoke and felt Rex's leash in her hand, but heard nothing.
"I pulled, just hoping please have something on the other end of that leash which was really scary for me," she said. Luckily Rex was there, but had sustained a shoulder injury.
"Overall, we were okay. I think at the moment your adrenaline just kicks in and you react. And you don't really feel the effects until after everything's kind of over with," Leavey said.
She was awarded a Purple Heart for her bravery, but her real heart began to ache when she heard about Rex's misfortune.
"Rex was classified non-deployable because of his injuries. So his main mission was to just work on base in Camp Pendleton and as Marines at the time our main mission was to deploy to Iraq, so he went through 11 different handlers," she said.
Leavey wanted to adopt Rex as her personal pet, but officials deemed him unsuitable for adoption and kept him on the base.
But Leavey wouldn't give up and with the help of fellow Marines, Sen. Chuck Schumer and others, Leavey's quest was publicized and her dream was granted with Rex being officially retired and passed to her. Then Hollywood, which always loves a feel-good story, came knocking.
To Leavey, who has a small role as a drill sergeant in the film, it still all seems like a far-away fantasy.
"I was sitting by myself and a commercial [for the movie] came across the TV. I was like 'is anyone seeing this? That's me!' It's so cool. It's surreal. It really is."
Unfortunately, Rex won't be able to enjoy his new found fame. He passed away in 2012. Megan now works as a sales account executive with the New York Yankees and lives with her dog Patriot and two cats.
"Megan Leavey, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite and rated PG-13 for war violence, language, suggestive material, and thematic elements, has garnered an 86 percent audience approval rating on the review site Rotten Tomatoes. The New York Times said: "If the conclusion doesn't bring a tear to your eye, you're way too cynical."
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