By Samantha L. Quigley

U.S. warriors hold tightly to some very distinct ideals. One of the most revered is that no one gets left behind.

So it should come as no surprise that Marine Corporal Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo didn’t want to leave her new best friend, Burt, in Iraq when her tour with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Unit ended.

Sure, Burt was loud and opinionated, but he was special. For the only female Marine in the unit, he was a non-judgmental shoulder to cry on and provided much needed support throughout her deployment. “Sometimes, even though you’re one of the guys, it’s hard for them to relate to you when something happens and you need comfort,” Kirk-Cuomo, a combat photographer, said. “I returned after a really bad day and was feeling like I wasn’t going to make it to the end of the deployment, and then I heard that voice. Burt was outside the tent screaming hello at me and telling me to get my butt outside and say hello back. I hadn’t seen him in weeks and I just about broke down seeing those gold eyes in the fading light that night,” she added. “I think I sat out in the dirt with him for hours and he never left me.”

Obviously Burt is a very unusual friend. But he’s not your typical friend. He is a cat—a beautiful orange tabby with big gold eyes. And he was Kirk-Cuomo’s unofficial therapist.

“[He] was something and someone that had nothing to do with war. He had no motivation other than food and love. He wasn’t going to yell at me unless I stopped scratching behind his ear,” she said. “It didn’t matter if you were a guy or a girl, it was an animal that had unconditional love for you in a world that seemed like the twilight zone at times.”

Burt, whom Kirk-Cuomo met within her first few weeks in Fallujah, isn’t the only Iraqi animal to be “adopted” by a U.S. service member. While on patrol, Kirk-Cuomo encountered dogs that had attached themselves to Marine units, and protected their Marines with a loyalty as fierce as that between brothers-in-arms.

“Those kinds of bonds are only forged through the hardships of war,” she said. “Those dogs were just as much Marines as any of us wearing a uniform. [They were] willing to die for the safety of their brothers.”

Kirk-Cuomo’s story of a connection with an Iraqi animal, is one often heard in the years since the United States entered the war in Iraq. Dogs and cats have become unit mascots and unofficial sources of furry therapy to many troops. But until two years ago these buddies stood little, if any, chance of going home to live with their service member in the States.

An email from a soldier to SPCA International asking the animal welfare organization to get “Charlie” home changed all that.

“In September of 2007, we received an email from a soldier who was desperately contacting every animal welfare organization he could find asking for help getting his unit’s dog home,” said Stephanie Scott, director of communications for SPCA International. “Once we were able to rescue Charlie, other people, other soldiers heard of what we were trying to do… and we started getting more calls.”

Two weeks after Charlie set paws on U.S. soil, representatives from the SPCA International program, Operation Baghdad Pups, returned to Iraq and brought home two more dogs. Liberty and K-pot—named for the Kevlar protection helmet his soldiers found him snuggled in one day when they returned from patrol—completed the first trio of rescues.

Then came Socks, Oreo, Bags, and Kujo. At some point the “cat people” caught wind of the program and the first two cats, Jasmine and Hope, became happy, pampered American cats.

Since those first few rescues, Operation Baghdad Pups has rescued 206 pets adopted by U.S. service members serving in Iraq, including 35 cats, at an average of $4,000 per pet. The cost of each rescue is completely funded through donations, with most of the money spent on security teams hired to retrieve pets that can’t be easily transported to Baghdad International Airport.

“At least half of our soldiers can’t get their dogs or cats into the airport,” Scott said. “Obviously you don’t just jump in a jeep and drive to the airport whenever you want.”

The security firms, however, go to the farthest reaches of Iraq to pick up animals.

“It actually takes a convoy of three armored vehicles to go get one dog, and every vehicle has to have three people in it,” she said. “That’s a total of nine people to get one dog.”

If a security team’s mission to go get a dog turns into a two-day journey that dog’s trip home can cost closer to $10,000.

“It’s very expensive, but it’s well worth it every time we get to witness a dog and a soldier reuniting,” Scott said. “It is a very, very special moment.”

No matter the cost, service members are not asked to pay to get their pooch or cat home. They are asked to contribute $1,000 to the program, but Scott said no one’s request has ever been turned down because they couldn’t afford the donation. The pets come home, regardless.

Service members requesting Operation Baghdad Pups get their pets home from Iraq are faced with a good deal of paperwork before their pets can be brought in to the U.S. The point is not to discourage a service member from bringing their pet home, but to impress upon them the weight of their decision and the fact that pets might need some TLC to make the transition successfully. Iraqi dogs and cats sometimes have a hard time adjusting to life in the United States where there’s grass, fences, and leashes.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan K. Pule holds a puppy he found in the streets of Al Kabani, Iraq, during a ribbon cutting ceremony at Ashoor Primary School.

Once requests are approved, Terri Crisp, Operation Baghdad Pups’ program manager, and a team of experienced rescuers fly from the States to Kuwait City. Then, on a staggered schedule, each rescuer goes into Baghdad, picks up to five pets and returns to Kuwait. From there it’s on to Amsterdam before returning to Washington-Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia. Once they clear customs, a pet’s service member or his family meets them. Those not met by their new families are seen by local veterinarian Chris Carskaddan, owner of the Clocktower Animal Hospital near the airport, before heading to their new home.

“When they get off [the plane] they’re bouncing around. They handle it amazingly well,” Carskaddan said of the animals. “Compared to everything they’ve been through, I think the trip is nothing to them.” Nearly all of the animals are incredibly healthy, he said. This is probably the result of a combination of factors, including the fact they’re all mixed-breed, which are reputed to be healthier.

“I’m amazed at the overall [good] quality of the health of the animals,” said Carskaddan, who gives the animals any vaccinations they might need and microchips them. “They generally have no congenital abnormalities. They’re well taken care of, and aside from some that have had significant trauma from explosions and that sort of thing, they’re in really good shape.”

Getting out of Iraq is the start of the good life for these pets, Crisp said.

“We joke that for these dogs and cats it’s like they’ve won the lottery,” she said. “The life for a dog or a cat living in Iraq is pretty bleak.

“Many of the animals that have been befriended by the troops have been pulled out of the hands of [those] that were [mistreating them],” she added.

Crisp said that while it’s easy to judge or criticize people with so little regard for animals, it’s a different culture and circumstances. Most animals in Iraq are strays and therefore are not vaccinated, so adults teach children to be afraid of them.

Nearly all the animals brought home through Operation Baghdad Pups were adopted as puppies and kittens under two months old and have had regular vaccinations and medical care.

That service members find ways to make that happen in a country like Iraq is a testament to their love for and devotion to these animals. Bringing them home is simply a payment in-kind for what the animals have already given their service members.

“The therapeutic value of these animals is, without a doubt, what makes all the hard work worth it,” Crisp said.

She has a mental file folder of stories but remembers a few in particular, like that of Moody, the dog. His unit had suffered the loss of five members in a bomb explosion and the soldier who adopted him told Crisp that Moody was a godsend.

“It was obviously, incredibly difficult,” she said. “He said, ‘We didn’t save Moody. Moody saved us.’ “When you’re in the military you’re trained to be tough and not show emotion. But having this dog that they could just kind of go and wrap their arms around and cry or talk to [helped them deal with what had happened].”

But an adopted pet’s therapeutic value doesn’t end when he or she gets a posh new pad in the United States.

One service member, whose mother thanked Crisp for getting her son’s dog home, had pulled three tours in Iraq. While there, he and Dusty fell into a morning routine that involved a run.

Dusty had gotten home before his soldier and couldn’t wait to resume their morning routine. After his first two tours, however, the soldier would sleep late and then want to watch television. The end of his third tour would be very different as Dusty would have none of that.

“He would literally sit by the side of the bed and with his paw just hit him, as if to say, ‘C’mon. Get up. We have to go for our run!’” Crisp said. “Finally [the soldier], would give in and they would get up and go for a run and he would begin his day.

“That third deployment, having that dog there to kind of push him along was what really allowed him to get back into the swing of things,” she added.

Each pet has his own personality and story. Take General George Patton, a puppy who would rather give orders than take them. He became the unofficial therapy dog for the Air Force Combat Stress Control Unit that adopted him. The four-week-old puppy had been found in a motor pool and was in danger of being euthanized when the Air Force unit stepped in to save him. He escorted the team to and from work each day and quickly became a fixture in their clinic. The team knew Patton was worth his weight in gold for the morale boost he provided service members.

These animals, once strays on the dangerous streets of Iraq, mean so much to the service mem­bers who, risking punishment, ad­opt them anyway. They’re friends, substitute family members, confidants, and as with Burt the cat, the one soul who won’t pass judgment. It’s no wonder it is so important for service members to get their pets home. Nor is it any wonder an organization like Operation Baghdad Pups is there to help. While Carskaddan, Scott, and Crisp know the value of the bond between these soldiers and their pets, they also respect the military and its rules, and it seems, the military respects the group’s efforts.

“They’ve never tried to stop Operation Baghdad Pups,” Crisp said. “I think even though [the regulation forbidding the adoption of local pets] is in place, and clearly for very good reasons, I think a lot of officers also recognize how important many of these dogs are to our soldiers.”

And no more evidence is needed than the tough, young Marine who met his dog at Dulles nearly a month after his unit had come home.

“I think he’d been through a couple tours and had seen everything in Iraq, but when he saw his puppy arrive, he broke down and said, ‘My lieutenant told me our mission wasn’t done until everybody came home. Now the mission is over because everybody is home,’” Carskaddan said. “And he started crying.”

It may be tough work, but Crisp said she hears all the time that these pets are like having a little piece of home while in Iraq. So, despite the challenges, Operation Baghdad Pups will keep working until every dog or cat comes home.

–Samantha L. Quigley is the editor in chief of On Patrol.