View Full Version : Dog rescue story in Reader's Digest

11-27-2006, 11:55 AM
In the December '06 issue of Reader's Digest, there's a wonderful story about a U.S. Marine who rescued a dog from Iraq. It's an excerpt from the book From Baghdad, With Love by Lt. Col. Jay Kopelman. I about melted when I read it and the accompanying photographs are just precious. I hope lots of other Pet Talk dog people saw it -- if not, you can access it at rd.com... it's very, very sweet. Would you all give your dogs big hugs for me after you read it. No dogs allowed in my building, you see.

critter crazy
11-27-2006, 12:02 PM

I remember being exhausted. The tiredness weighed more heavily on me than my 60-pound rucksack. As I walked through the door of our command post in northwest Fallujah after four days of dodging sniper fire and sleeping on the ground, all I could think about was sleep.

That's when I first saw Lava.

A sudden flash of something rolled toward me out of nowhere, shooting so much adrenaline into my wiring that I jumped back and slammed into a wall. A ball of fur skidded across the floor, halted at my boots, and whirled in circles around me with the torque of a windup toy. Though I could see it was only a puppy, I reached for my rifle and yelled.

It was November 2004. In the days before our march into Fallujah, U.S. warplanes had pounded the Iraqi city with cannon fire, rockets and bombs. The bombardment was so spectacular that I -- and the 10,000 other Marines waiting on the outskirts -- doubted anyone would live through it. But plenty managed. Now, sniper fire came from nowhere, like screams from ghosts.

At the sound of my voice, the puppy looked up at me, raised his tail and started growling this baby-dog version of "I am about to kick your butt." Then he let loose with tiny war cries -- roo-roo-roo-rooo -- as he bounced up and down on stiff legs.

"Hey," I said, bending down. "Hey. Calm down."

There was fear in his eyes despite the bravado. As I held my hand out toward him, he stopped barking. He sniffed around a little, which surprised me until I noticed how filthy my hands were after almost a week of not washing. He was smelling dirt and death on my skin.

I leaned forward, but he tore off down the hall. "Hey, come back."

The puppy looked back at me, ears high, pink tongue hanging out sideways from his mouth. I realized he wanted me to chase him. He was giving me the "I was never afraid of you" routine. So I scooped up the little guy. He squirmed and lapped at my face, which was blackened from explosive residue, soot from bombed-out buildings, and dust from hitting the ground.

"Where'd you come from?" I said.

The puppy acted like he had just jumped out from under the Christmas tree, but meanwhile I called my cool to attention. It's not allowed, Kopelman. Marines letting down their guard and getting friendly with the locals -- pretty girls, little kids, cute furry mammals -- it wasn't allowed. But he kept squirming and wiggling, and I liked the way he felt in my hands. I liked not caring about getting home or staying alive, and not feeling warped as a human being because I was fighting in a war.

"Not Worth the Ammo"

Born in Pittsburgh and a graduate of the University of Miami, I'd been a Marine since 1992, when I transferred from the Navy. Now, in my second deployment to Iraq, I was looking at a starving five-week-old outlaw. Members of the First Battalion, Third Marines -- called the Lava Dogs for the jagged pumice they'd trained on back in Hawaii -- said they'd found the pup at the compound when they stormed it about a week ago. He was still with them because they didn't know what else to do with him. Their choices were to put the little guy out on the street, execute him or ignore him as he slowly died in the corner. The excuses they gave me were as follows: "Not me, man, no way." "Not worth the ammo." "I ain't some kind of sicko, man."

http://www.rd.com/images/content/110906/31022SemperFidoB.jpgCourtesy Lt. Col. Jay KopelmanMarine and pup, 2004, "Lava was like
everyone's kid," says Kopelman.
In other words: Warriors, yes. Puppy killers, no.

They named him Lava. The newest grunt was treated for fleas with kerosene, dewormed with chewing tobacco, and pumped full of MREs. Officially called Meals Ready to Eat but unofficially called Meals Rejected by Everyone, MREs were tri-laminate pouches containing exactly 1,200 calories of food. Lava quickly learned how to tear open pouches that were designed to have a shelf life of three years and to withstand parachute drops of 1,250 feet or more.

The best part was how these Marines, these elite, well-oiled machines of war who in theory could kill another human being in a hundred unique ways, became mere mortals in the presence of a tiny mammal. I was shocked to hear a weird, misty tone in my fellow soldiers' voices, a weird, misty look in their eyes, and weird, misty words that ended with ee. "You're a brave little toughee. Are you our brave little toughee? You're a brave little toughee, yesssirree."

The Marines bragged about how he attacked their boots, slept in their helmets and gnawed on all the wires from journalists' satellite phones up on the roof. "Did anyone feed Lava this morning?" someone yelled out, as "I did" came back from every guy in the room.

He was always chasing something, chewing something, spinning head-on into something. He stalked shadows, dust balls and balled-up pieces of paper. He could drag a flak jacket all the way across the floor. But you couldn't yell at him. Even though you were an elite, well-oiled machine of war, you'd be considered a freak if you yelled at a puppy. So he was completely pampered and kept warm.

By the time I came around, he already knew the two most important rules of boot camp: You don't chew on bullets and you only pee outside. Lava gave the Marines something to be responsible for above and beyond protecting their country, and getting their brains blown out -- or worse -- in the process. He gave them a routine. And somehow, I became part of it.

Every morning we fed Lava and then piled out of the house to various posts across the city. Some Marines patrolled the streets; some cleared buildings looking for weapons; some got killed. Me, I supervised three wide-eyed Iraqi soldiers who, in their new, U.S.-issued, chocolate-chip cammies, waved their rifles around as if clearing away spider webs. They were untrained, out of shape and terrified, these members of the Iraqi Armed Forces, coaxed by the United States to help root out insurgents.

At night we all gathered back at the compound, where we covered the windows with blankets and sandbags, cleaned our weapons, and made sure Lava had dinner. After that, we would bed down and review the day's events.

"We found a weapons cache ..."

"Yeah, well, we got caught in the alley ..."

"Yeah, well, we had to transport wounded and then we got hit ..."

As we talked, Lava would paw through our blankets. Then he would sit between my crossed legs and stare out at everyone.
Scary, Uncertain Fate

As I untied my boots, Lava bit at the laces. As I pulled a boot off, he grabbed hold and tugged. I tugged back. The dog growled. I growled back. "Hey, what's with this puppy anyway?" I asked. "What are you guys planning on doing with him?" No one answered me.

Lava crawled out of my lap and turned a few circles, flopped down and fell asleep with his nose buried in my empty boot.

Like everything else in Fallujah then, nothing but the immediate was really worth thinking about. But when a puppy picked my boots to fall asleep in, I started wondering how he'd die. Especially when I knew I'd be leaving the compound soon and heading for Camp Fallujah about 12 miles away. In February, I'd be leaving Iraq for good and returning home to California.

I just knew the little guy was going to die. This one won't make it because he's too damned cute. As a lieutenant colonel, I also knew military rules as well as anyone, and every time I picked Lava up, they darted across my brain like flares: Prohibited activities for service members under General Order 1-A included adopting as pets or mascots, caring for or feeding, any type of domestic or wild animals. The order was taken pretty seriously. The military didn't want anything like compassion messing things up. Our job was to shoot the enemy, period.

Most nights, Lava slept on the roof of the compound with a group of Marines, but once the weather turned colder, he came inside. He looked wide-eyed and cute, all paws, snuffles and innocence. In reality, he wasn't innocent at all. I personally saw the little monster destroy several maps, one cell phone, five pillows and some grunt's only pair of socks.

http://www.rd.com/images/content/110906/31022SemperFidoC.jpgCourtesy Lt. Col. Jay KopelmanBeef jerky for breakfast: Some of the
guys tore up little pieces for Lava.
One morning I woke up and found Lava sitting near my sleeping bag, staring at me, his left ear flapped forward and the remains of a toothpaste tube stuffed in his mouth. "Morning," I said. He replied with a minty belch.

Another time, I woke up to see his entire front end stuffed into one of my boots, his butt and back legs draped out over the side. He wasn't moving. I thought he was dead -- probably from all those MREs. "Oh, no," I said, cursing. But when he heard my voice, his tail started wagging like a wind-kissed flag. I decided that from then on, he wasn't eating noodles, biscuits or beans in butter sauce. No more toothpaste. Only meat.

And then another morning, I thought someone had short-sheeted my sleeping bag because I couldn't push my feet to the end. It was Lava, who'd managed to crawl in during the night and curl up at the bottom in a ball.

I pulled the dog up under my chin. He snorted and snuffled, and I scratched his ears. "What's going to happen to you once we leave here, little guy?"

The puppy thumped his tail on my chest. I realized that I could no longer sleep at night unless some little fur ball was nestled up against me. Though from day one Lava had been a group project, I was now considering him my own. I made his safety and well-being my mission.

I started calling friends and family, telling them about Lava and asking for help. At first I thought that the silences on the other end were the usual international lags on a cell-phone call. But I soon realized that my friends back home were trying to place the word puppy in the context of war.

When I called one of my best buddies back in San Diego, Eric Luna, and asked him if he knew how to get a dog out of Iraq, I heard nothing for a long time but some static. "Hey, Easy E, you still there?" I said.

"Yeah, man, I'm here. What did you just say?"

"Puppy. I have a puppy. Can you help me figure out how to get him out?"

Eric collected his wits. "Sure, man. Yeah, anything you want."

I returned to the main base with Lava on Thanksgiving Day in a Humvee -- which, after serial bombardments, firefights and crashes, looked more like a secondhand stock car. Lava loved the loud trip; he perched on my lap and drooled. Once safely at Camp Fallujah, I spoke to the military dog handlers. The working dogs made up an elite unit that out-specialized any weaponry or high-tech mapping systems the U.S. armed forces possessed.

When I asked if Lava could hide out in one of their kennels, the handlers shook their heads. "Can't help you, sir." They said that the closest military vet who could give Lava vaccinations worked in Baghdad -- some 40 treacherous miles away. They doubted he'd be able to help. They wished me luck, though, and gave me what I suspected was some very expensive dog food.

When I contacted the military vet in Baghdad, he respectfully reiterated General Order 1-A, adding that diseases such as leishmaniasis, hydatid disease and rabies were common among stray dogs in Iraq. "My apparent lack of concern isn't due to not caring," he wrote. "I'm simply following orders."

Well, shoot. But I wasn't about to stop there. I'd already snuck Lava into the officers' building, where he slept with me on a cot. On the computer, I was Googling anything I could think of -- puppy passport, help Marine help puppy. I felt frantic about Lava's fate. Yes, I was a Marine, brave to the point of insanity. But I'd be damned if I was going to let anyone shoot my puppy.
Daring Rescue Plan

For most of January and February 2005, I worked at the Joint Task Force in Balad, replacing a lieutenant colonel there. I had great accommodations: a trailer with a real bed, a refrigerator, a wall locker. We also had a gym and plasma TVs in our command center. It might have been a great mission, except I worried about Lava. I knew he was safe with the Marines back at Camp Fallujah, but I was trying to save his life.

For a while Corporal Matt Hammond watched him, even building him a little plywood hooch, which the guys filled with toys and blankets and hid in the commanding general's personal security detachment, the last place on earth anyone would think to look. Then we came up with a plan to get Lava to Baghdad, where he would be vaccinated. The guys managed to convoy there, and at a prearranged time and place handed Lava off to journalist Anne Garrels, whom I'd become friendly with and who promised, by e-mail, to watch him for a few weeks at her National Public Radio (NPR) compound.

The hand-off was a bit of an ordeal, I heard later. Matt struggled to remain emotionless, while Anne grabbed Lava and left. Lava didn't have a collar or a leash, so she had to carry the now-large puppy back to the car. Luckily her Iraqi driver didn't object; most Iraqis did not like dogs. When I read Anne's e-mail from Baghdad, not even Patton's presence could have kept my tears from flowing. "Just to confirm that Lava is safely with me..."

Was I a gutless wimp? Maybe.

Anne would e-mail me with updates whenever she could: "Lava is happy." "He's incredibly affectionate." "He sits beautifully
Passing the Test

http://www.rd.com/images/content/110906/31022SemperFidoD.jpgScott Peterson/Getty ImagesJournalist Anne Garrels, who found
Lava, "incredibly affectionate,"
kept an eye on him in Iraq.Meanwhile, a man she knew in Iraq, someone I'll call Sam to protect his identity, managed to locate a vet and get Lava all his shots and proper documentation. Before long, Anne had to leave Baghdad, while I was assigned to patrol the Syrian border until leaving for the States. By now, I had learned about Ken Licklider, who owned Vohne Liche Kennels in Indiana. He was a former U.S. Air Force police-dog handler who trained dogs for search-and-seizure work; many of his dogs were used by the military to sniff out bombs in Iraq. There was a chance that Lava could fly out with Ken's dogs and handlers to the United States. "It means putting Lava on a transport with them," John Van Zante told me.

John, of the Helen Woodward Animal Center in California, and Kris Parlett, with the Iams dog food company, were my link to Ken. Iams had even offered to pay all the transport costs. Now we just had to sneak Lava out of the Red Zone in Baghdad, where he was hiding with journalists, to the military base in the Green Zone, the walled center of the city. John and Kris would take it from there. Me, by e-mail: "Thanks, John."

John: "We may actually put Lava on a plane. I hope this is it!"

Then, a worry. The kennel's overseas program coordinator: "Can you confirm that Lava has all his health and shot papers in order? Recently we ran into a problem with one of our dogs, and the military vet would not allow the dog to leave the country for an extra thirty days. I don't want that to happen to Lava." Neither did I. On top of that, I was leaving soon.

Sure enough, in early March I left Iraq, spent three days in a tent in Kuwait, and then flew to Shannon, Ireland. I was on my way home, but all I could think about as I drank pints with a bunch of other Marines was this: I just didn't see Lava making it to California to be with me. The plan to fly him out seemed too easy. You only get so much luck, my thinking went.

But as the weeks passed, the plan was cemented. In the Green Zone, David Mack (not his real name) reviewed Lava's documentation, including an international health certificate for live animals. Security around the Green Zone was cinched tighter than usual after reports of "irregularities" with the Iraqi elections. Demonstrations raged; mortars were launched.

At the NPR compound in the Red Zone, Lava was smuggled into a vehicle with a cameraman, since no animals were allowed to pass through. The vehicle drove to the first checkpoint. Sam waved goodbye. More mortar rounds were launched into the Green Zone. I sat at home in California and waited for an e-mail. And paced. And worried.

The vehicle sped through the dangerous streets, inching toward the checkpoint line. The driver stared forward. The cameraman counted rolls in the coiled barbed wire outside his window.

A bomb dog circled the vehicle as a guard reached through the window to check the cameraman's pass. The pass was good; it was the bomb dog's possible detection of Lava that was so threatening. But he was in search of only one thing, and when he didn't find it, he was off to the next vehicle. The guard scanned the pass and waved them into the Green Zone where, at that moment, the Iraqi government extended the country's emergency state by an additional 30 days. All of us waited. I paced some more.

Mad Scramble for Freedom

Iraqi police patrolling the parade ground watched a vehicle trailing dust approach a location in the Green Zone and stop. They watched one man get out and shake hands with another, watched the two men exchange papers, watched a dog jump out of the car. They approached the vehicle and asked to see the papers. What was the dog's purpose?

"He's a working bomb dog," one of the men said. "I'm taking him back to my compound." They examined the papers, the dog, the man's face.

A motorcade then sped to Baghdad International Airport. One vehicle contained David, Lava in a crate, other people, and gunmen in bulletproof vests who guarded the doors and windows. The vehicles zoomed along on a highway where 12 people had been killed by bombs in the last month.

Finally, my dog arrived at the tarmac near a truck loaded with gear. "This is Lava," David told Brad Ridenour, a dog handler for Vohne Liche Kennels and another vital link in the chain. Soon after, I received a new e-mail.

I stared. I opened it and read. "As of 1600 hours," it said, "Lava is out of the country." For the second time in my adult life, I broke down and cried.

http://www.rd.com/images/content/110906/31022SemperFidoE.jpgPhotographed by Lori Stoll"We have a new family now," says
Kopelman, with wife Pam, stepson
Sean, and Lava in La Jolla, California.Brad flew with two other dog handlers to Amman, Jordan, where they passed through customs. They spent the night in a hotel in Amman, while the dogs were kept in an underground garage. As a result, Brad spent most of the night down there. Lava bounced around and wanted to play.

In the morning, the dog handlers were taken to Royal Jordanian, which would fly them to Chicago's O'Hare airport. Ken Licklider, meanwhile, drove to O'Hare, where he met up with John, Kris and others. They waited in the baggage area. Finally, Lava's crate came through.

John later explained, "That's when the dam just broke." He told me how he rushed Lava outside and exclaimed, "His first pee on American soil!"

And about Lava's behavior once they got to the hotel room, which John described as "Running around and around the room in circles. Wow."

And then John was finally calling me and saying, "He's here. He's safe. He's an American dog." John, Kris and Lava flew into San Diego the next day.

Surrounded by the media, I waited at the Helen Woodward Animal Center. Reporters asked me how I felt. Before I could answer, the airport van pulled up. I could see Lava through the window, see how big he'd gotten. I saw the same face, the same goofy look in his eyes, the tongue hanging out.

When Lava hopped down, stopped and stared at all the reporters, and then turned toward me, I looked a little above his head. That way I didn't see the recognition cross his face, didn't see past and future connect in his eyes. Because if I did, I knew I'd lose it then and there, and none of my comrades in the U.S. Marine Corps would ever speak to me again.

I'd wanted him to be alive. I wanted to know he was breathing and leaping after dust balls. If he was alive, then he would make it here to California and run on the beach and chase the mailman instead of strangers with guns. I'd wanted him to be alive almost more than anything I could think of.

Now Lava was headed my way. Fast. As fast as his legs could carry him. As I bent down to deflect the crash, that's when I saw the look in his eyes. It was an older version of the look he gave me when I first spotted him that day in Iraq: "I am going to kick your butt."

Film footage showed a dog barreling toward a well-composed Marine in uniform who bent down, caught the dog in mid-leap, stood up and turned circles with his face buried in the dog's fur. Lava was safe. He was home.

11-27-2006, 12:56 PM
I saw the magazine and it was a sweet story. I want to check the book out.

11-27-2006, 12:57 PM
Thanks for printing that, I wasn't sure if it was allowed. I cried like a baby when I read that in my RD. Wonderful story.

11-27-2006, 01:06 PM
My step son, and future step son in law returned from Iraq several months back. Both of them told of stories like this. I am afraid most of the people in Iraq treat dogs as pests.. Our son said he has never seen so many skinny, sick lost dogs ever. Including Haiti..