Four days after Christmas in 2009, Sgt. Michael Golembesky found a tiny puppy. Not in his front yard or by the corner store, but in an Afghani village he and his unit had bombed during a nearly weeklong firefight with the Taliban. He says he couldn’t pass up the chance to “rescue something so innocent in the midst of that chaos.” Once back on Golembesky’s remote base, Bear, as the 9-week-old dog was called, “was our little buddy and morale booster. Everyone cared for him and he was a part of our team.”
The mutt offered the soldier, who was on his fifth deployment, comfort and companionship, something rare in a war zone. Now with him at home in Colorado, the dog, who went through similar experiences to Golembesky in Afghanistan, has helped the sergeant cope with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in ways that Veteran Affairs therapists and prescriptions can’t.
Heartwarming stories of mutts saved by soldiers (and vice versa) have been celebrated around the world through best selling books and network television shows, but what many civilians may not realize is that befriending dogs, or any animal, while deployed is against military law. Under General Order 1-A, soldiers are forbidden to adopt, care for, or even feed any domestic or wild animals in the war zone. If those who are discovered refuse to abandon their new pets, the strays are often shot, sometimes in front of the offending officer. After Marine Matt Hammond started feeding strays at Camp Fallujah in January 2005, another soldier, following orders, buried the dogs alive in a sewer. Hammond and others later rescued the pups, only to have them taken away again. The soldiers themselves risk demotion in rank, reduction in pay, and a loss of benefits.
There are good reasons for the ban, which most soldiers and rescue groups understand. Some insurgents, wise to Americans’ soft spot for animals, strap IEDs to dogs, or injure and place them next to bombs as booby traps. Disease is another concern. “One of the foremost reasons for this is the high risk of rabies, which is not a disease that soldiers are routinely vaccinated for and which can be deadly,” says military spokesperson, Bill Speaks.
“The military is not just trying to be hard-nosed about this,” says Terri Crisp, SPCA International Program Development Manager. “They are making sure that people don’t put their lives or the people they are fighting alongside in jeopardy just because they get distracted by a dog. If everyone in the military was given the go-ahead to adopt a dog or cat it would get out of control very quickly and it wouldn’t even be in the best interest of the animals.”
Nonetheless, hundreds of soldiers like Golembesky continue to risk punitive action in order to bring their furry friends home with help from organizations like the SPCA International and Nowzad. And according to these non-profits and the soldiers that benefit from them, the numbers are increasing.
“My husband was very scared about the repercussions of his actions,” says Golembesky’s wife, Sabrina, who raised $4,000 and helped coordinate the logistics to bring Bear home through the UK-based non-profit Nowzad. But Golembesky felt he had already given up so much for the military that he didn’t want to let his new friend go, too. “He had deployed five times in seven years,” Sabrina shares. “During which he only saw his four-year-old daughter for about a total of a year.”
Military punishment for harboring a pup is notoriously random, based on the discretion of the commanders. Thus far, no soldiers have faced court-martial, discharge, or reduction in rank for adopting dogs, but Sgt. Gwen Beberg came close. In 2008, she was threatened with demotion for deliberately disobeying an order to get rid of Ratchet, a desert pup that she had helped for five months after he’d been found in a pile of burning trash. Her commanding officer confiscated Ratchet as he was being driven to the Baghdad airport for a flight to the United States. In an online campaign spearheaded by Operation Baghdad Pups, word quickly spread throughout the blogosphere and online networking sites. Over 70,000 people around the world, including some active duty soldiers, signed a petition asking for the military to let Ratchet come home. Eventually, the military changed Ratchet’s status to military working dog and allowed him to be sent to the US.
For the most part, the military operates on a canine version of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Some senior military officers have even helped stray dogs. Maj. Steven Hutchison, a Vietnam veteran who returned to the battlefield when he deployed to Iraq at the age of 60, repeatedly defied orders from the highest echelons to get rid of Laia, a one-month-old puppy he took in when another unit was ordered to abandon her. Hutchison, who kept Laia either in his lap or by his side day and night, even moved her from base to base to avoid detection. Laia was eventually brought home by Hutchison’s brother, in honor of the major, who was killed by an improvised explosive device.
Soldiers like Golembsky who work in remote bases don’t have to worry much about hiding their dogs since few high-level commanders visit outlying hostile areas. Some bases even have pets that are inherited by each new unit stationed there. But soldiers on large military bases have to go to great lengths to conceal their pups. Lt. Col. Jay Kopelman, stationed in Iraq, adopted Lava in 2004 and continuously handed the puppy off to different soldiers to stow in different places throughout the base. “People turned a blind eye,” he says, “because they know there are more benefits derived from taking in stray dogs than there are negatives. Everyone knows these animals are good for morale.”
In a war zone, the dogs often become mascots of sorts, accompanying soldiers on patrol, providing first warning alerts, but most of all, helping soldiers cope emotionally both on the battleground and back home. “I think that more people are coming to the realization that these animals are really special and serve a very important goal,” explains the SPCA’s Crisp. “We see the benefits when they are in Iraq and we also see the benefits these animals provide to soldiers readjusting to their lives in the U.S. when they return home.”
The motto “no man left behind” applies to soldiers’ pets as well, especially since leaving “a buddy” behind means certain death. On the streets of Iraq, where dogs are considered vermin, they are often beaten, abused, entered in dogfights or killed. In Baghdad, squads of municipal workers and vets, often accompanied by police execute the overwhelming population of strays by shooting hundreds of them during regular sweeps, and military contractors are routinely ordered to execute packs of wild dogs roaming military bases, since they carry disease and will eat anything, even dead bodies. Dogs that have befriended American soldiers are potentially at an even greater risk of being killed since they tend to rush towards people in uniform.
The most difficult challenge is getting the dogs from the war zone into the hands of the rescue organizations. What results is often an underground railroad of sorts. Soldiers have implemented complex smuggling schemes to shuttle dogs from base to base, hiding them just outside the barracks, or handing them off to each other, paid locals, or even a journalist, to take them through dangerous desert roads and across borders before transferring them to rescue organizations. Once the dogs are handed off to a private entity, General Order 1-A no longer pertains, and organizations only have to answer to the US Department of Agriculture, which require health certificates and vaccinations (with certain small exceptions) for entry into the US.
“We are walking a fine line,” says Crisp, who has helped bring over 300 pets home through the SPCA International’s Operation Baghdad Pups. “[Both groups] are eyeing each other from opposite sides of the room because our fear is that if we push the issue, it may push the military into a corner in which they have to really start enforcing the no pet rules. If we were asking for their permission, the dogs would still be there.”
Military spokesman Speaks says that, like all military regulations, the ban is “routinely reviewed for accuracy and applicability.”. Meanwhile, soldiers continue to take in strays and try to ship them stateside, and rescue organizations are keeping their fingers crossed. “We just go about it very quietly and don’t rub it in their nose,” says Crisp. “If at some point the military really calls us on it, we would have experience behind us to prove that these dogs do help soldiers.”
Is it worth the hassle and the cost? According to the soldiers, definitely. Golembsky, like many, credits his dog for getting him through post-deployment PTSD. “When things are bad, Michael can talk to Bear because he went through it with him and Bear understands,” says Sabrina. Golembsky was diagnosed with moderate to severe PTSD, yet he has only received one phone call from the Marine Corps to see how he is doing. “I could only imagine how much worse it would be if he had to leave Bear in Afghanistan, especially since he watched his buddy get shot in the head this past deployment.”
The dogs also provide more than just companionship; they provide much-needed hope. “You are doing something just for this dog,” says Kopelman, who has been challenged by people for saving dogs in the face of so much human cruelty. “But still, metaphorically, if you can get this mutt back to states, perhaps you can save the people of Iraq from their terrible fate and provide them a better life as well.”
Guest post by Justine Sharrock. Thank you so much for sharing this story, originally published in Nomad Editions’ Good Dog with us!