Monday, April 27, 2009

From Baghdad, With Love...

What is it about a scraggly, forlorn little puppy found in an abandoned wreck of a house in Fallujah, Iraq that would cause a hard-bitten, battle tested Marine Lieutenant Colonel to buck military policy that forbids the keeping of pets in a war zone by adopting this little dog, and to move heaven and earth to get him shipped home?
This story is told in a heartwarming little book called "From Baghdad, With Love" written by Lieutenant Colonel Jay Kopelman and Melinda Roth. The book's simple premise is summed up in it's subtitle: "A Marine, The War, and a Dog Named Lava".
In November 2004, Kopelmans squad of Marines enter an abandoned house in what is considered one of the most dangerous places on Earth, Fallujah, Iraq. They hear a suspicious clicking noise in one of the rooms. Thinking that an insurgent was preparing to attack them, the Marines locked and loaded and prepared to open fire. But something told Kopelman not to give the fire order just yet. They cautiously enter the room to find not a hell-bent insurgent, but a tiny puppy left behind when the former occupants of the house left. The clicking sound was the puppy's claws tapping the floor. The puppy takes one look at the Kopelman and his Marines and in his unbridled joy that all puppies possess, runs around the room careening into walls, jumping up and down and barking with a false bravado. The Marines immediately take the dog back to their base and name him Lava after the lava pits in Hawaii where his unit trains, and from which the unit takes it's nickname " The Lava Dogs"

Now the question is: what do they do with this puppy? Military law forbids the keeping of pets. Do they just abandon him someplace and let him slowly starve to death? Do they do the unthinkable and put a bullet into him? No, these hardass Marines trained to kill, show their humanity and let him live. They were warriors, not puppy killers. Using unorthodox methods of pet care, they de-flea him with kerosene, de-worm him with chewing tobacco and feed him MRE's. Maybe they aren't the most compassionate Marines after all. Lava shows his toughness by devouring the MREs and, like all puppies do, chewing and crapping on anything that moves. But these Marines melt when they see this puppy at play. I think that the sight of a helpless animal, especially a puppy triggers in us the desire to just scoop that animal up and love him, show him that he's wanted and cared about. I think the puppy helps these Marines to remember that while they are highly trained fighters capable of killing, underneath, they are still human beings capable of love, compassion, and care. This little puppy helped these Marines to regain some of their humanity lost after so much time seeing man's inhumanity.

The book goes on to describe the next part of the Lava problem: namely what does Kopelman do with the dog, once he's ready to ship out. Lava has bonded with him and his fellow Marines. It would be the height of cruelty to just leave him in Iraq to die. Kopelman comes up with the bright idea of spiriting Lava out of Iraq and back to the states where he will raise the dog as part of his family. But little does he know about how much of a pain in the ass it is to get an animal out of the country and halfway around the world. There are health exams to be administered, military inspectors to sneak around, contacts state-side to be made to arrange the arrival of the animal and also how does he get the dog out of Iraq? The stateside arrangements are easy enough, but the Iraqi side of the plan proves to be the sticking point. Without spoiling the ending, suffice it to say that Kopelman ultimately is successful and Lava is now enjoying a full and safe life stateside.

But to answer the question posed at the beginning of this post: I think it's the desire to help the helpless which is part of human nature. We may differ as to how to do that, but with a puppy or a kitten, or any other defenseless creature, there is only one way to help them because they cannot help themselves. They must be raised by caring, loving people who expend the time and expense to care for these creatures.

I'm partial to dogs myself, although I also like cats. But if given a choice, I'd rather have a dog because dogs show unconditional love. With a dog, you know what you're getting up front. A dog doesn't hide it's emotions. If a dog likes you, you'll know it five seconds into the encounter. Cats, you can never tell exactly what they're feeling at any given moment. Unless they show overt behavior that is unmistakeable in its intent. Most of the time a cat will just sit there and make you speculate as to what it's feeling. Some people like cats because of their independent and mysterious nature. I'll take a dog anyday.