Five years ago, Megan Leavey set foot on the field at Yankee Stadium wearing the dress blues of a corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps and gripping the leash of a tough-as-nails German shepherd named Sgt. Rex.
She was being honored by the team after winning the biggest fight of her civilian life — a battle against military red tape that was preventing her from adopting the dog she had fallen in love with.
The beloved bomb-sniffing K-9 was Leavey’s constant companion during her time in the Marines. They went on more than 100 missions in Iraq from 2003 to 2006, looking for explosives that could maim or kill their fellow Marines, before they were both nearly killed by an improvised explosive device near Ramadi.
She misses Sgt. Rex, who lived well but not long — “a great eight months,” she said — in suburban comfort in her Valley Cottage, N.Y., home before he died in December 2012.
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the drama stars Kate Mara as Leavey. Leavey has a quick cameo appearance in the film as a drill sergeant who gets in Mara’s face.
“I’m really happy,” Leavey said in an interview done not far from her Rockland County, N.Y., home. “They did a good job, and I hope people enjoy it.”
Although the film embroiders the story for dramatic effect, Leavey said, “I think the true message comes through — the bond and partnership between me and Rex and how important it was.”
The memories are still raw for Leavey, who says that the first time she saw the finished movie, she was “the one in the back of the theater, sobbing.”
Leavey’s march to the military began not long after she graduated from high school in 2001, where she was a softball standout in high school, and entered the State University of New York at Cortland.
It was a heady time, she said. “My first month away from home, in college, 9/11 happens. That had a really big impact on my life. … It threw off everything that I felt like I was supposed to be doing. And I just thought there’s a bigger picture in the world.”
She said she essentially flunked out in her freshman year. She tried college again as a commuter student, but the result was the same. “I was just not into it.”
She ended up working next to the a military recruiting station.
“Finally, one day I was like, I’ll just go in,” she said. “I just made my mind up: If I’m going to do this, let me really just go all in. I hear the Marines is the hardest branch, so if I’m going in, I’m gonna go for it all the way.”
After boot camp, she went to Military Police school, where she joined the K-9 program and was paired with Sgt. Rex.
The Marine and dog quickly forged a bond that lasted long after the war-zone blast of an IED that left Leavey with hearing loss, brain injury, and post-traumatic stress disorder, and Sgt. Rex with a damaged shoulder and neurological ailments.
Leaving Sgt. Rex
After a year of intense rehabilitation in California for both Leavey and Rex, Leavey was honorably discharged. She asked to take Rex, but was denied because the Marines still needed him.
The parting hurt. “Rex was my comfort for so long — and to not have that any more, it was hard for me,” Leavey said.
She never gave up hope. She checked on Rex regularly.