Soldiers finding ways to bring home, save 'small part of Iraq'

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Soldiers finding ways to bring home, save 'small part of Iraq'

By Michael Stetz


April 11, 2008

EARNIE GRAFTON / Union-Tribune

Jay Kopelman, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel, was able

to bring his dog Lava back from Iraq. They live in La Jolla.

Nubs is not alone in getting his lucky paws on U.S. soil.

There's also Lava. And Charlie. And Socks. And Tiny and

Princess and Kirby and Powder – all stray, war-battered

dogs spirited from Iraq to the United States by Marines and

soldiers who became enamored with them.

In wars past, U.S. service members have managed to bring

back dogs they informally adopted. Rin Tin Tin – a German

Shepherd that became a movie star in the 1920s – was

actually found by a World War I soldier in France.

It takes a minor miracle to bring the dogs home, and

Nubs' much-celebrated arrival in San Diego two months

ago was no exception. But technology and the dynamics of the

Iraq war are making such journeys more common.

Among the efforts, the Society for the Prevention of

Cruelty to Animals International has started Operation

Baghdad Pups, a program dedicated to getting troops'

dogs out of Iraq.

So far, five puppies have been rescued through the program.

The organization has gotten requests for help with 35

others, and the demand is growing.

“The people over there are carrying an incredible

load,” said Terri Crisp, who has gone to Iraq three times

to bring back dogs for the SPCA. “The dogs are like a

piece of home. They fill a void.”

U-T Multimedia: To watch video of Nubs' reunion March

22 with Marine Maj. Brian Dennis, go to

It can cost as much as $4,000 to send a dog to the United

States. It can also be dicey, considering the military forbids keeping pets in a combat zone.

Troops get help from family members, friends, animal rights

groups such as the SPCA and businesses. Private security firms are sometimes hired to transport the dogs from combat areas or far-away desert outposts to airports.

The service members say they have no choice.

They're their dogs.

“They provide tremendous lift,” said Jay Kopelman, a

retired Marine lieutenant colonel who wrote a book called

“From Baghdad, With Love,” about his successful effort to bring a puppy named Lava to San Diego in 2005. “They provide a sense of home. What's more American than a kid and his dog?”

The bond can be hard to explain, said Kopelman, 48, a La Jolla resident. To understand, a person almost needs to have been there, he said. It's war. It's ugly. It's deadly. Troops get tired, lonely, scared.

And here comes this mutt.

Or, in his case, a puppy found in the ruins of Fallujah.

Lava, so named for Kopelman's Marines outfit, Lava

Dogs, was dirty and flea-bitten. But Kopelman and his fellow

Marines immediately felt a tug.

“You can't save everything,” Kopelman said. “But

you can save this small part of Iraq. And in doing so, you're saving a part of yourself.”

Not an easy thing

Kopelman was one of the first to get a dog home from Iraq.

There's no road map for this. You wing it, he said. It's one of the reasons he's surprised the trend seems to be increasing.

He got help from an American reporter, the Iams pet food company and the Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe. And he wasn't sure – until Lava finally arrived in the States – that it was going to work.

“It's not an easy thing to do.”

With the war now five years old, U.S. bases are becoming more permanent and soldiers and Marines are staying in one place longer, leading them to befriend the dogs that routinely come looking for food and shelter.

That leads to a connection. And that leads the service members to think of doing the improbable: bringing them home.

Today's members of the military have found that the Internet can play a key role in doing so.

That's how Marine Maj. Brian Dennis recruited help for Nubs' rescue. And it's how Capt. Jamisen Fox and his Marine buddies recently got seven puppies to San Diego from their remote outpost near the Syrian border.

“We never heard about Marines doing this,” Fox said.

One of the Marines sent a photograph of his puppy to a troop support organization, Operation Cookie Jar.

Thus began the effort. Operation Cookie Jar set up the flight and vaccines. The Marines managed to find an Iraqi veterinarian to give the shots and sign the necessary paperwork. Puppy carriers were shipped over.

Hundreds upon hundreds of e-mails were sent back and forth to make all the arrangements, said Fox, 33, a Camp Pendleton Marine. Finally, in February, vehicles from a private security firm rumbled to the outpost, 200 miles from Baghdad.

From Iraq, the puppies were flown to Kuwait and then to the United States.


Kopelman adopted two of the puppies, which now romp at the Rancho Coastal Humane Society in Encinitas, a shelter that also helped in the effort. They are about 4 months old. They're teething. They're full of pep.

“We felt beholden to them,” Fox said, noting that the dogs had little chance of surviving in Iraq once the Marines left.

“Who was going to care for them?”

Changed for the better

It's tough being a dog in Iraq. They aren't considered pets. They tend to run in packs. Many are malnourished. Some are mean. Some have been wounded and are missing legs.

Nubs, for one, had much of his ears sliced off by an Iraqi who believed it would improve the dog's hearing and watchdog abilities.

Some of these dogs have never been treated kindly by a human, so any kind of affection can be richly awarded, Dennis said. He and Nubs were reunited March 22, when Dennis got back from Iraq, and they were recently featured on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”

Crisp, of the SPCA, and others discount criticism from some who question the time, energy and money spent to save dogs, considering the brutal toll on human beings in Iraq.

The service members' lives are changed for the better because of the bonds they make with dogs, they say. Some have done multiple tours in Iraq. Fox, for one, has been deployed three times. Take away those bonds and they suffer.

Steve Ronk founded Operation Cookie Jar, the Sparks, Nev., organization that helped get the seven puppies out of Iraq. He's a former military man who spent more than 60 months in Saudi Arabia.

At times, animals on base were rounded up and shot, Ronk said. He couldn't bear it. He grabbed a cat once and put it under his shirt. He took it home. He saved two others as well.

So he felt compelled to help the Marines with the puppies, he said. He knows the heartache of deployment all too well.

“I'm still right there, right with them.”

The website is