Channing Tatum knew that he wanted to produce War Dog: A Soldier’s Best Friend, airing in time for Veterans Day on HBO. But the actor didn’t know how it would effect him to immerse himself in the lives of heroic canine special operations warfighters and their human partners.
“I wasn’t sure going into this how I would come out of it,” Tatum tells PEOPLE.
Now, the actor hopes audiences will take from documentary what he did: A deep appreciation for the remarkable bond between the canine warfighters and their human partners.
“People think of soldiers as these machines that go into war and kill the bad guys,” Tatum says. “Through these conflicts that have gone on for years, we have gone a little deeper into soldiers’ minds and hearts.”
The work of producer-director Deborah Scranton, the documentary features three canines (Layka, Mika and Pepper) and their human partners, exploring their time on the battlefield and beyond. Combining military combat footage with intimate personal interviews, Scranton shows how the deep connections form between members of these unique teams — and how the bonds withstand trauma, separation and even death.
“I hope that people feel the empathy and respect and the love that is in this story,” Scranton says.
One of those featured in the documentary is former Delta Force operator Dave Nielsen. The elite special operations warrior deeply mourns the loss of his canine partner Pepper, who remains missing in action some 12 years after she disappeared while fighting in Iraq.
“You’re a warrior I hold in the highest regard,” Nielsen says in the documentary, while reading a letter to the valiant missing dog. On camera, Nielsen goes through the items he keeps in a box to commemorate Pepper. These include a map of where she vanished while hunting for an enemy fighter, her picture and a napkin he had used to wrap some of the dog’s food.
The loss of Pepper haunts him, Nielsen tells PEOPLE.
Nielsen’s team had been looking for an enemy combatant who was hiding near the Tigris River, Nielsen says. Pepper dove into thick scrub to ferret out the man; came out; and went in again.
“The second time, she looked back at me, and she’d never done that before,” Nielsen tells PEOPLE. “She was saying something.”
It was the last time Nielsen saw her.
Nielsen and his teammates searched frantically for Pepper on foot and by helicopter. “We looked for her all morning,” he recalls.
Finally, while the search helicopter ran low on fuel and time, “the commander made the very tough call” to suspend the search, Nielsen says.
The Delta man never suspended his love, though.
“This dog taught me so much how to live a selfless life and serve others,” he says. “She showed me that to perfection.
”I dream about her and she’s running back and forth waiting for me to come get her.”
Nielsen and the other subjects’ stories are important for audiences to learn about, Tatum says.
“They’ve been so vulnerable in such a way with their dogs that they haven’t been able to have with humans,” Tatum adds. “I don’t think people associate that with soldiers.” The documentary shows another side, he says. “You really get to see these guys and their softness.”
The relationship between the two species of warriors is profound, Tatum continues. “It’s deeper than we will ever be able to know.”
Tatum’s producing partner Reid Carolin wants the documentary to give back to the heroic animals.
“I hope it gives us an opportunity as a culture to honor these dogs,” Carolin says. “Special operations K-9’s are different from other dogs. What these dogs do is highly extraordinary. They are the best of the best.”
“These animals are very pure,” says Tatum, who visited some active duty military canine units. “They’re unbelievably intense.”
War Dog: A Soldier’s Best Friend will premiere on HBO on Monday, November 13 at 10:00 PM ET/PT with a special sneak preview on HBO GO, HBO NOW, and HBO ON DEMAND on Veterans Day, Saturday, November 11.
Says Tatum: “It’s deep. It’s going to get you, even if you’re not a dog person.”