Megan Leavey and Matt Morales: The Unbreakable Bond Between a Marine and Her Bomb Dog Handler

Andre Martin | Last Updated : April 12, 2024

In the world of military working dogs and their handlers, few relationships have embodied the undying loyalty, trust and devotion at the heart of that unique partnership quite like Megan Leavey and Matt Morales. Though their bond was forged under the most harrowing of circumstances during the Iraq War, the former U.S. Marine and the man who helped retrain her bomb snooping combat dog shared an ineffable connection that has transcended war’s brutality.

Leavey’s unlikely journey from aimless young adult to being paired with a bomb-sniffing German Shepherd named Sergeant Rex, to their pioneering struggles keeping each other alive while hunting explosive devices, was canonized in the 2017 film “Megan Leavey” starring Kate Mara. But the marine’s real-life relationship with the dog’s former handler Morales represents an equally captivating narrative about trans-species companionship persevering through devastation.

From the Wreckage of War to an Unbreakable Bond

Leavey’s path first intersected with Morales in 2006 when he was tasked with attempting to rehabilitate and recondition the decorated bomb dog Rex. Having already conducted two harrowing combat deployments together scouring the battlefields of Fallujah and Ramadi for IEDs and other explosive threats, Rex had grown dangerously aggressive after losing partial hearing from repeated explosions and loud blast waves.

Faced with the prospect of Rex being permanently retired from service and potentially euthanized due to his behavior, Morales made it his mission to find a compatible new handler who could earn the dog’s trust and combat-hardened respect. When Leavey first met the ornery canine while training at Camp Pendleton in San Diego, their initial interactions were understandably tense.

“He was NOT happy to see me,” Leavey recalled of Rex’s reaction upon their first encounter. “We both got matched up at a really bad point in our lives. He had been blown up and was giving Matt a really hard time. The last thing he wanted was a new owner and handler.”

Morales, however, had a strong inkling that the feisty young marine’s quiet determination and compassion could be catalysts in bonding with the equally resilient Rex. And indeed, through weeks of gradual immersion and learnings from the seasoned handler about how to read the dog’s mannerisms and psychological cues, an extraordinary duo was reborn from the wreckage of war.

Rex was soon re-certified as an IED hunter by the Marine Corps and deployed alongside Leavey on her own Iraq deployment in 2007 to Ramadi tracking down hidden explosives. Their 100+ missions range from routine to intensely harrowing, building upon a cohesive mind/body language only they could intuitively decipher when lives were on the line.

“The ability to completely trust him in situations where my life was on the line and his training kicked in to warn me about explosives, it’s just an unreal relationship that you’ll never experience anywhere else,” Leavey reflects. “No words could ever fully describe that feeling.”

Retiring Together After the Trauma of Combat

Separated after returning stateside, Leavey and Rex both endured painful stretches of transition inherent to post-combat life for service members and military working dogs alike. She grappled with PTSD while he descended into aggressive fits and behavior triggered by the trauma of his wartime bomb discoveries.

In the throes of these immense personal challenges, it was the profound trans-species bond they shared that proved instrumental in overcoming the invisible wounds of war. Leavey spearheaded an unorthodox bid to adopt Rex as her personal pet given their psyche-saving connection and history of life-or-death interdependence.

When the military threatened to euthanize the now “defective” explosives dog, Leavey bravely bucked protocol to prevent being permanently separated from her comrade. Her appeals to the highest ranks of the Marine Corps struck a chord, granting Rex a full pardon and medical retirement into her care.  

“I just couldn’t let that happen,” Leavey said of fighting to adopt Rex when the military sought to decommission him. “We’d been through so much hell together and he didn’t know any other life than being a marine. I had to bring him home with me after our service was over.”

Leavey and Rex’s heart-wrenching reunion was captured in the climactic scene of “Megan Leavey” when she appears shocked to find her old wartime companion alive and is finally able to embrace him following his medical retirement from the Marines. From the perspective of the dog handler who originally fostered their symbiotic rapport, witnessing their journey come full circle was equally cathartic.

“Seeing Megan link back up with Rex when they were both home struggling with the aftermath, it was humbling to realize the extent to which they needed each other,” Morales reflects. “Their bond transcended the statutes, and I’m thankful it was preserved against the odds. I feel like a proud parent just watching their relationship continue post-wartime.”

A Brotherhood of Dog Handlers Undeterred By Conflict

Though separated by their respective roles during combat, Morales too recognized his own distinct kinship with the unflappable German Shepherd Rex and the young marine who showed such instinctive abilities in handling him. A natural rapport formed between the two people who most intimately understood Rex’s language, temperament and importance achieving pivotal wartime objectives.

“Matt thinks the world of Megan and her relationship with Rex,” says Katrina Morales, handler Morales’ wife. “Bomb dogs become part of the family for handlers like my husband because they’re all putting each other’s lives on the line out there. To watch Megan pick up that torch from him and honor Rex’s legacy with such care, it created a real unbreakable brotherhood.” 

After both successfully acclimating away from the Iraq deployments, Morales received his own emotional reunion and had the chance to work with Rex once more during a brief training stint at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina before the service dog’s full retirement. The three former wartime colleagues came together like family.

“He was just a totally different dog around Megan,” Morales says of Rex’s demeanor when Leavey was around compared to his frequent bouts of combativeness with other handlers. “We both had been through those career-changing experiences with him, and their love enabled his transition in a way I’ve never seen between a Marine and their dog.”

Tragically, the family they built was torn asunder when Rex succumbed to an untreatable disease in December 2012 at the age of 11 while under Leavey’s care. The deployed missile that causes so many canine heroes’ early demise left a profound void in both of their lives. 

Leavey has since channeled that pain into greater advocacy for military working dog causes like establishing a national memorial, while the entire Morales family mourned the passing of a protector they knew so well. Today, the respect and admiration between the two remains stronger than ever, united by Rex’s immortal spirit.

“We know he’s in a much better place now and we’ll see him again someday,” Morales said, speaking for both Leavey and himself. “Until then, carrying on his memory means honoring the purity of that bonding language we can’t even fully put into words. Megan understands it because there was an unbreakable trust between them.”

Their abiding respect is a reminder that the ties connecting human and animal warriors on the front lines can never be shattered by the trauma of combat itself. If anything, Megan Leavey and Matt Morales personify those bonds being reinforced into a lifelong devotion spanning returning home and beyond.

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