Megan Leavey Is A Good Iraq War Film. But Is It ‘Stolen Valor’?

Several members of Leavey’s unit have gone public with claims that call into question various key aspects of the film.
Adam Linehan Avatar

The most moving scene in Megan Leavey, Hollywood’s latest big-budget war drama, doesn’t take place in the desert, or on the bomb-cratered streets of Ramadi, but rather in a quiet neighborhood in upstate New York. The film’s title character, played by Kate Mara, wakes up in the middle of the night to a loud, wailing sound coming from outside her bedroom window. She’s just returned from Iraq. Half-awake, she stumbles into the yard, where she sees her father walking towards his car. “Don’t open it!” Leavey screams. Her father, confused, tells her the noise is just a car alarm. It takes a moment for Leavey to realize where she is, and that nothing is about to explode. All of the drama unfolds on her face. And that’s it. Scene over.

I imagine many combat vets will watch that scene and think: I’ve been there. At least I did. Few films have managed to better capture what it feels like to have just come home from war, before the brain has had time to adjust, and the whole world still feels combustible.

While some aspects of Megan Leavey smack of Hollywood’s overzealous touch, for the most part it registers, at least to this Army veteran, as authentic. That was the filmmaker’s intent: The picture has been aggressively marketed as being based on a “true life story,” and Megan Leavey — the real Megan Leavey — has played a prominent role in the promotion of the film, appearing in numerous interviews pegged to its release.

But is Megan Leavey a true story? Not exactly. Hollywood isn’t in the business of telling true stories — they’re trying to tell great stories, the kind that make you cry into your popcorn, the kind that win Golden Globes and Oscars, the kind that open. The military, on the other hand, favors the opposite approach, going to great lengths to ensure that whatever happens in war is thoroughly documented — in awards citations, and after-action reports, and official unit histories — so that service members can be sure that the sacrifices they make, or are willing to make, in combat won’t be misplaced or forgotten.

Megan Leavey was met with a warm reception when it premiered on June 9. It currently boasts a respectable 85% on Rotten Tomatoes, and gave it 3.5 out 4 stars. “[The director] lets this irresistible real-life story tell itself with a minimum of manufactured sentiment,” gushed The New York Times. The Hollywood Reporter called it “affectingly unvarnished,” while Peter Travers of Rolling Stone wrote, “Based on a true story (no, really!), this war drama deftly sidesteps the paths that suck you down in sentimental quicksand.”

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite (best known for her critically acclaimed documentary, Blackfish), Megan Leavey is the story of a female Marine dog-handler who deploys to Iraq with her ornery bomb-sniffing German Shepherd, Rex. After the two are wounded by an improvised explosive device, a traumatized Leavey returns home, where she spends years fighting to adopt Rex from the Corps. It’s one of the few major war films to feature a female lead, and the first to explore the dangerous work of military dog-handlers, who have played a crucial role in Iraq and Afghanistan, where IEDs pose the biggest threat to coalition troops.

“I was charged with the responsibility of depicting Megan’s experience of what happened,” Cowperthwaite said in a recent phone interview with Task & Purpose. That said, she expressed annoyance over her inability to tell Leavey’s story in full, noting, “She did two tours, and we only depict one, and that will always frustrate me. But we are making a narrative Hollywood movie.”

Coperthwaite isn’t the only person frustrated by Megan Leavey. Several members of Leavey’s unit have gone public with claims that call into question various key aspects of the film.

About nine months ago, after production had wrapped, someone leaked a draft of the script to a handful of Marine veterans who served with the real-life Leavey in the K-9 unit at Camp Pendleton in California. Some of those Marines were appalled by what they read — so much so that four drafted impassioned letters to the filmmakers, alleging, in exhaustive detail, numerous discrepancies they argued amounted to “stolen valor” and requesting certain key plot points and character descriptions be either altered or removed.

“As a fellow female Marine, I tried to put myself in her shoes,” one letter reads. “I would not want to feel attacked and hated by my fellow Marines because I was telling my story. The problem is that Leavey did not tell her story. She told others’ stories, and staked the claim to them.”

Kate Mara stars as Megan Leavey in Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s MEGAN LEAVEY, a Bleecker Street release. Jacob Yakob / Bleecker Street

The most vociferous complaints tend to revolve around the film’s depiction of Leavey’s dog, Rex. In the film, Rex has the temperament of a starving wolf, and Leavey is assigned to work with him after he bites his previous handler. This is essential to the arc of the story: Much of the first act centers on Leavey’s struggle to pacify the dog as the duo prepares for their deployment to Iraq. In contrast, detractors insist, Rex was what dog-handlers refer to as a “push-button” dog: disciplined, loyal, and extremely good at his job. “All you had to do was pick up the leash, and go,” one former member of the K-9 unit told Task & Purpose.

Joe Kang, who was Rex’s handler before the dog was assigned to Leavey (and did not write a letter to the filmmakers), told Task & Purpose that he was never bitten by Rex. “Megan is my friend, but the film is full of shit,” he said. “Rex was the best dog in the kennel. He was perfect. And now the film makes him look like a piece of shit.” Kang suspects the film version of Rex is likely based on a dog with a track record of biting handlers named Kevin, whom he described as “fucking nuts,” a “beast,” and a “land shark.”

In an email to Task & Purpose, Mike Dowling — a Marine veteran who was Rex’s first handler, and later wrote a book about their experience in Iraq together, entitled Sergeant Rex: The Unbreakable Bond Between A Marine and His Military Working Dog — explained that, while Rex could be aggressive when he needed to be (like, in combat), or when intentionally provoked, he was not aggressive with his handlers and “had an overall well-mannered temperament.” Adding, “He was a very happy dog in general and it was always safe to have him off leash as long as he was around other handlers or Marines who understood just to leave him alone.”

Others voiced similar complaints. “After reading this script I felt sick to my stomach!” begins a letter written by Jason Wood, a former Marine sergeant who said he was “directly responsible for training” Leavey (a claim corroborated by another member of the unit). “There were so many discrepancies I couldn’t believe it. This script took so many events that happened to others in our kennel and claimed them as her events.”

Premiere of Bleecker Street and LD Entertainments’ “MEGAN LEAVEY” at Yankee Stadium. Pictured (left to right): Ramon Rodriguez, Megan Leavey, Kate Mara, Common, Edie Falco, Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Photo by Patrick Lewis/Starpix

Jesse L. Maldonado, a former Marine staff sergeant, who was assigned to the K-9 unit at Camp Pendleton at the same time as Leavey, wrote that he was saddened and angered by the script, and that it “discredits the service and sacrifice of fellow Marines,” including himself. Maldonado contended that the first act of the script borrows heavily from his own personal experiences dealing with a difficult dog when he first arrived at the unit, “within weeks” of Leavey, and his subsequent ascent up the ranks after being severely wounded by suicide bomber in Iraq.

In both his letter to the filmmakers and in a recent interview with Task & Purpose, Maldonado agreed with Kang that the Rex character is likely based on Kevin, which was assigned to him, and that it wasn’t Rex’s previous handler who got bit, but Maldonado himself. “If we’re comparing stories, me and Leavey, I’d say that the majority of this movie pertains more to me than her, and that’s what pisses me off. I had a handler-aggressive dog, I got blown up in Iraq, and when I got back I became a chief trainer.” (Asked if he planned to sue the filmmakers for using his life story, he replied, “I wouldn’t even know how to go about suing someone.”)

Another point of contention: In the film, soon after Leavey returns to Camp Pendleton from Iraq, she begins training a new dog-handler on how to search for explosives. According to Maldonado and three other members of the unit, including Wood, Leavey would have never trained new handlers, because that role is reserved for chief trainers.

Lt. Benjamin Maple (left), K-9 master, and former Cpl. Megan Leavey (right) prepare to accept Military Working Dog Rex’s certificate during his retirement ceremony and adoption at Camp Pendleton’s K-9 unit, April 6, 2012. DoD photo

The film’s version of how and why Leavey became a part of the K-9 unit at Camp Pendleton is also a matter of dispute. All four authors of the letters, as well as Kang, took issue with the film’s version, which depicts Leavey being assigned to clean the unit’s dog kennels as punishment for drunkenly urinating in public. They also deny that she earned the job as a dog-handler by becoming an expert rifle marksman, exceeding the Corps’ physical fitness standards, and then proving her grit by donning a bite suit so she could serve as a training dummy for the military working dogs. Instead, the Marines said, Leavey was assigned to the K-9 unit just like everyone else: By receiving official orders to Camp Pendleton upon completing the Military Working Dog Basic Handler Course in San Antonio, Texas. To attend that course, Marines must be selected by a board of senior instructors after graduating from military police school.

All of these complaints seem trivial, especially given the fact that the real-life Leavey did, in fact, deploy twice to Iraq, both times with Rex, and was wounded in combat. But even the circumstances around her injury, a climactic moment in the film, have been called into question. In the movie, Leavey and Rex are struck by an IED while approaching a suspicious vehicle on a road in Ramadi. Both are knocked unconscious. When they come to, instead of allowing herself and Rex to be medically evacuated, Leavey volunteers to join a group of soldiers in a counterattack on a nearby compound to “get” the “fuckers” who tried to kill her and Rex. The ensuing firefight is a battle of epic proportions, replete with exploding RPGs, fierce close-quarters combat, and more than a few near misses for Leavey. The scene ends with Leavey and Rex scrambling to climb into a Humvee as it drives away under heavy fire. The pair is almost left on the battlefield.

None of the Marines with whom Task & Purpose spoke were present during the incident, which resulted in Leavey earning the Purple Heart. But Wood, Maldonado, and Kang nevertheless insist that it was mostly fiction.

Kang claimed in our interview that he heard the full story because it was protocol for all Marine K-9 units to be debriefed on any “significant incident” involving a dog-handler. He said that his unit was informed that Leavey and Rex had been struck by an IED, and that it had launched them into the air without causing any serious injuries because it had been buried too deep. But he doesn’t recall any talk of an ambush. “We didn’t get any crazy stories about firefights,” he said. “If that happened, we would have heard about.”

Maldonado, who was both the noncommissioned officer in charge of Leavey’s section and her chief trainer at the time of the incident, said: “Reports of significant events involving any K-9 handlers in Iraq came through me back at Camp Pendleton. By my recollection, she was on top of an IED that was buried too deep, so it just knocked her unconscious. There were no shots fired. Had she been taking and returning fire, it would’ve been a big deal.”

None of which is to diminish Leavey’s service. According to the Marine Corps’ office of Manpower & Reserve Affairs, Leavey has been awarded the Purple Heart, two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals (one with a “Valor” device), the Combat Action Ribbon, two Sea Service Deployment Ribbons, and the National Defense Service Medal. The citation for Leavey’s Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with “V” device, which covers Leavey’s service in Iraq between May 2006 and November 2006 and was provided to Task & Purpose by M&RA;, describes Leavey’s actions on Sept. 5, 2006, the day she and Rex were wounded, this way:

“Corporal Leavey displayed the true fighting spirit of a United States Marine on 5 September 2006 when she was rendered unconscious by an IED detonation but refused to return to base and insisted on continuing the mission. Corporal Leavey’s initiative, perseverance and total dedication to duty reflected credit upon her and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval service.”

Notably, there is no mention of a firefight. But while such details are usually included in medal citations, they don’t have to be. An IED explosion that wounded a Marine and her military working dog is a very significant event, and could have overshadowed whatever else happened that day. And there were certainly no shortage of insurgents in Ramadi in 2006. Leavey’s Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal citation is the only record of the event that the office of Manpower & Reserve Affairs was able to provide Task & Purpose. Maj. Garron Garn, the office’s public affairs officer, explained in an email that Purple Hearts and Combat Action Ribbons “do not have citations.”

Megan Leavey official poster. Image courtesy of Brigade Marketing

Like many projects involving the Marines, the Megan Leavey script was submitted to the Marine Corps Motion Picture & TV Liaison Office for review.

But a member of the film crew told Task & Purpose that the Marine Corps made it clear early on that it had no intention of assisting the project. “We just hit a wall,” he said. “There didn’t appear to be a chance no matter what script changes we would’ve made. We [Hollywood and the Marine Corps] haven’t cooperated on a film in many years, and probably never will, because the Marine Corps is interested in making Marines, not making movies. That’s what they kept telling us. The other branches, however, tend to be more eager to participate in the production of films.”

Two Marine public affairs officers, Maj. Neil Ruggiero and Lt. Col. Curtis Hill, confirmed that the script was reviewed by the Marine Corps’ media office, as did Phil Strub, the entertainment liaison at the Department of Defense, who is known in Hollywood as the gatekeeper for filmmakers seeking military access. Strub told Task & Purpose that “there was a fair amount of discussion about and ultimately it was not approved for production.” He added that the reason might have been “because it is ‘based on true events’ and some of the scenes were beyond the pale for my Marine counterparts to approve.”

Strub explained that factual accuracy is taken into account when determining whether or not the DoD will endorse a film. He offered Lone Survivor and Horse Soldiers, an upcoming film “based on a true story” about the invasion of Afghanistan, as examples of films that his office has approved for production support. It should be noted, however, that, while widely praised for its realism, Lone Survivor has been the subject of numerous articles arguing that the filmmakers grossly exaggerated key elements of the story — for example, the number of Taliban fighters Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, the “lone survivor,” and the members of his team were up against. Acknowledging these criticisms, Strub noted, “There was only one survivor, so it was almost impossible to verify certain things.”

Hill, the person primarily responsible for reviewing Megan Leavey, declined to provide Task & Purpose with the specific reasons why the project was rejected, saying merely that “there were aspects of the film that did not accurately portray the roles and missions of the Marine Corps.”

A request for an interview with Leavey submitted through Brigade Marketing, the marketing and publicity agency promoting the film, has not been answered as of the time of publication. However, Leavey has spoken publicly about the incident before. In 2014, she appeared in the Sportsman Channel’s documentary series, Saving Private K9, which chronicles the stories of military and law enforcement dog-handlers. That version of the incident is fairly similar to the one in the film: Leavey and Rex are struck by an IED, they recover, and then help assault an enemy position after their unit begins taking mortar fire.

“We cleared like two houses, and then we found the detonation materials on the roof with cigarette butts, so it was confirmed that people were definitely watching us from afar that day,” Leavey recalled in the episode. “Getting back to the Humvees, we started taking small arms fire, an ambush basically.”

The film crew member acknowledged that questions were raised about Leavey’s firefight story during the production process. “We questioned it because our Marine Corps technical advisor questioned it,” he said. “And what I heard from the producers who developed the script with her was that there was some small arms fire. That’s all they told me, so I’m sure it was a little bit of both: The producers felt like it’d make a better story, and Megan went along with that. There isn’t really a story if she just gets blown up.”

He added that the film’s exaggerations were necessary. Making movies is a business, after all. “We want to put people in the seats and to put people in the seats, you need to make a good movie,” he said. “So we may deviate from the truth at certain points and say, ‘It would be more interesting if we went with A instead of B, or C instead of D.’ So it’s not that we didn’t look into the truth of all of it, and that we didn’t have to, we just felt that it was a better story if we changed it a bit.”

Still, during our interview, Cowperthwaite seemed shocked when I brought up the allegations raised by the Marines, claiming she had never received or heard of the letters.

“I don’t know what’s behind all that,” she said. “I’ve worked with Marines for years, making documentaries, and I’ve never heard a Marine talk about another Marine like that. I find it surprising that anyone would say that about someone with a Purple Heart. Megan is just so not that person. She’s the person to take the spotlight off her constantly.”

Years ago, Cowperthwaite co-produced a series of episodes for a History Channel documentary series called Shootout!, which chronicled major battles from the early days of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and spent a lot of time interviewing combat veterans. That experience, she explained, deepened her appreciation for the military, and her hope was that Megan Leavey would do the same for others, especially people who wouldn’t normally watch a war film.

“Maybe a kid would fall in love with this story because he loves dogs,” she said. “Or a woman who finds Megan relatable. They’ll think about sacrifice and loyalty. And they’ll think about it the next time they meet a veteran. They’ll understand what they’re saying when they say, ‘Thank you for your service.’” After a pause, she then admitted that she had, in fact, heard about the letters. But just as she started to explain, a Brigade Marketing publicist interjected. “Sorry to cut in here, guys, but time is pretty much up,” she said.

Megan Leavey is now in theaters nationwide.