VxPoem ID: 26020
Posted: December 16th. 2006 1:39:03 AM
PART THREE SEMPER FIDO
Age Group: Adult
PART THREE RD STORY:
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.
Courtesy Lt. Col. Jay Kopelman
Beef 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.
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