No Buddy Left Behind
Thanks to the Guardians of Rescue program, soldiers returning from war can find a friend in a rescued dog.
Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project
In March of 2013, Robert Misseri received a phone call out of the blue about a dog needing help getting out of a dangerous situation. That's pretty common for Misseri, 43, founder of Guardians of Rescue in Smithtown, N.Y., an all-volunteer organization on Long Island that has been rescuing animals since 2010. But this request was slightly different. It was coming from Afghanistan, a perfect fit for Guardians of Rescue, which has two soldier-related programs: Paws of War, which matches rescued dogs with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and No Buddy Left Behind, which rescues dogs from war-torn situations.
As it turns out, a fellow Long Islander serving in Afghanistan had befriended a dog and wanted to bring her back with him when his tour of duty ended in the summer of 2013. The request itself wasn't so outrageous, says Misseri, who had successfully brought back two dogs from Afghanistan a few years back. It was how the request evolved that made the effort outstanding and worthy of national news coverage, including spots on Anderson Cooper and The NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.
Flashback to January, when Staff Sergeant Edwin Caba, 25, of Long Beach, N.Y., arrived in Afghanistan for his third tour of duty with the 82nd Airborne Division of the Army National Guard. Almost immediately, Caba and his squad became aware of a shepherd mix name Sheba hanging around the base.
"It took about several weeks before she grew comfortable with us," recalls Caba. However, once Sheba knew the soldiers were her friend, "Sheba walked out on patrol with us. We could walk several miles a day." And Sheba was always at their side.
A few months into the tour, something seemed wrong with Sheba. She became less active, and the soldiers were worried she was sick. Not sick, they discovered, but pregnant, and in mid-March she gave birth to seven puppies.
"Once she had the puppies, we would feed her all we could, give her water and keep her comfortable," he recalls.
Caba found himself becoming particularly fond of one puppy he named Cadence. "I have served with great guys, and having your friends is good," explains Caba, "but having a companion who is always happy to see you, I don't know how to explain that companionship."
Because the dogs were not allowed to sleep inside with the soldiers, they built them a shelter to keep them safe outside. This was after learning that "local farmers had killed Sheba's mom because they knew how it would affect our morale. And it did," he adds.
Caba wanted to find a way to take Cadence and Sheba home with him. With no idea where to start, he reached out to his high school English teacher, with whom Caba had stayed in touch. In fact, this teacher had come to Caba's mother's rescue when her home was destroyed in 2012's Hurricane Sandy. "I assumed she might know someone who could raise a few hundred dollars to get the dogs home," he recalls.
Thousands of dollars, actually, was what they needed to raise, which is what Misseri told Caba after the teacher put the two in touch. Caba's story about Sheba and her puppies struck Misseri as something he couldn't ignore, especially knowing that many veterans he had worked with in the past had befriended dogs overseas.
"They were very saddened that they had to leave their dogs behind when they served, that no organization existed to bring that dog home," says Misseri. "It weighed heavily on them."
In fact, this was what Caba feared for Cadence and Sheba. "Leaving them behind would have ultimately meant starvation or death," says Caba, who knew that when his deployment ended in August 2013, the military was abandoning that area of Afghanistan completely. "No one was coming in to replace us. Sheba, she walked out on patrol with us, really protected us, she felt like she was a member of our team, and leaving her behind would have been just been awful."
It was Misseri's idea to rescue not only Cadence and Sheba, but all eight dogs. Misseri reached out to Nowzad, an organization dedicated to rescuing abandoned animals in Afghanistan, which a Royal Marine from the United Kingdom founded and is based outside Kabul. Nowzad understood the security measures needed to communicate with the soldiers and get the dogs out.
"It's an extremely complicated process. Ninety percent of the time the soldier's location is classified, so we have to get an individual to meet up with someone to collect the dogs," Misseri explains. Caba says that the interpreter they used locally helped with some of the arranging. "Then the dogs have to travel to Kabul, oftentimes it is a chartered private plane, which in and of itself is dangerous and expensive, or a vehicle that could drive several hundreds miles in a day or two. Then we have to get them safely to the Nowzad shelter. If locals knew that those dogs are owned by U.S. servicemen, they would kill everyone, including the dogs."
Once Caba started the process, he discovered that the dogs would have to start their journey to America months before the soldiers' deployment ended. The dogs left in May; Caba didn't leave until August. "I worried a lot once they left," Caba recalls.
In fact, once the dogs got to Nowzad, they had to be quarantined for 30 days. In the meantime, Guardians of Rescue worked to raise the more than $18,000 it needed to safely transport the dogs. It took until almost August for that to happen, through people donating $10 here and $20 there.
"Now that we've raised the money, Nowzad has to fly the dogs to Dubai, where they are quarantined for another 10 days. Then we have to file for health certificates," adds Misseri, "and we have to clear customs here in United States."
The dogs flew as cargo on a commercial flight to New York City's Kennedy airport on September 4th, 2013. Guardians of Rescue, working with its partner Save A Pet Animal Rescue and Adoption Center in Port Jefferson Station, N.Y., rented a bus to take the soldiers to the airport to greet the dogs. "While we were at airport," recalls Misseri, "the soldiers still didn't believe those dogs were here in America." (This despite the aforementioned national media being there to record the reunion.)
"The fact that [Guardians of Rescue] made it happen was just unbelievable," recalls Caba. "When I got to Cadence's cage, I was worried that she would be overwhelmed with flying, but she remembered me. She came right out and jumped on me." Six other soldiers from his unit adopted the remaining puppies, and Save a Pet took Sheba to help her become a service dog for retired military members.
"Some of our veterans have dark spots in their life with PTSD and similar disorders from being in war," says Save a Pet founder Dori Scofield, who works with rescued dogs like Sheba to train them to be service dogs. "When a vet bonds with an animal, it helps them get that self-confidence back, that trust back, that safe feeling back."
Leah Ingram is the author of 14 non-fiction books, including "Suddenly Frugal: How to Live Happier and Healthier for Less." That book grew out of her popular frugal-living blog called Suddenly Frugal.