It's dark, dangerous and thousands of miles away from home. Night after night, the U.S. soldier stands guard over the military camp near the frontline of the war zone in Iraq. Far from his family, and immersed in the insanity of war for more than a year, it is one of the loneliest and most stressful situations a human can endure. However, this soldier is lucky because he has a companion that came out of the brutal landscape and offered comfort, unconditional love and a touch of home.
In Iraq, companion pets such as cats and dogs are neither common, appreciated nor treated humanely. There are thousands of strays that make their home in the desert or in the mountains. During times of conflict, U.S. soldiers are finding that befriending these strays and forming close bonds is providing the troops with a much needed sense of hope and normalcy. Even though military law forbids service members from fraternizing with animals, there is no denying this bond is saving the lives of service men and women and the homeless cats and dogs.
Some of the dogs were originally bomb-detection dogs released into the wild to fend for themselves or starve by irresponsible defense contractors who didn't want the cost or burden of "doing the right thing." Others are descendents of the local mixed-breed of rugged mountain dog or clever desert dog. In either case, the canine has heroically served a valuable role for the troops and civilians alike. So when soldiers returning home from war were told they must leave their companions behind, SPCA International (SPCAI) got involved and Operation Baghdad Pups was created in 2007.
This program offers American service members the opportunity to adopt and transport the animal companions they cared for while deployed. Because of regulations and military laws, not to mention international customs and laws, the logistics for securing and transporting these animals is very involved. Luckily Terri Crisp, who is the Director of Operation Baghdad Pups, has worked diligently over the years to fine-tune the procedures of the operations to ensure success.
I was surprised and thrilled to learn back in May that I had a local connection to this program. The Clocktower Animal Hospital in Herndon, where I take my dogs Flip and Tiki, was not only supporting Operation Baghdad Pups, but very closely tied to it. I met Mickey Sonstegard, one of the employees of Clocktower, at the Reston Pet Fiesta where she was promoting awareness of the program.
Sonstegard had recently returned from a trip to Iraq where she helped bring home several dogs who had been left behind and were waiting to be reunited with the service members who befriended them on the front lines.
Because the majority of returning animals enter the country through Dulles International Airport, there was a need for veterinarian services in close proximity. Enter Clocktower Animal Hospital. In the two years Clocktower has been involved with the program, they have cared for nearly 150 dogs and cats. Each animal is examined, treated if needed, and micro-chipped. According to Dr. Chris Carscaddan, owner of Clocktower Animal Hospital, more than 350 dogs and cats have been rescued by the program, and although there are many more animals still over there that need to be reunited with their service members, he believes the program has made a significant difference.
If Sonstegard has anything to say about it, the program will continue to help U.S. military service members bring their companions home. She feels very fortunate to have been able to adopt one of the rescued pups, and says Roni Ashti, which means "joyful peace" in Kurdish, is absolutely the best dog. Her goal is to train Roni to become a therapy dog for Wounded Warriors. This would bring full circle the special dog who survived the horrors of the Iraqi war zone, to bring joyful peace to a wounded soldier who has also survived the horrors of war.
Sonstegard is scheduled to return to Iraq this fall for another rescue mission. She holds fundraisers to help cover her travel expenses which are significant, but says the expense is well worth it to see the look on a soldier's face when reunited with their fellow furry servicemember. No buddy left behind. Mission: Complete.