Editor’s note: Today is Veterans Day, a time to honor service members, so we bring you an excerpt (with permission) from Welcome Home Mama & Boris: How a Sister’s Love Saved a Fallen Soldier’s Beloved Dogs by Carey Neesley with Michael Levin (Reader’s Digest, 2013). The book tells the story of Carey’s brother Peter adopting a dog and her puppies (only one of which survived) while stationed in Iraq. When Carey got word that Peter had died, she resolved to bring the two dogs back to the U.S. This is taken from the chapter “The Journey Home.”
The reports start to trickle in from Baghdad in a string of short phone calls, e-mails, and photo attachments. Because I can’t be there, I’m crawling out of my skin — I’m worried about what might go wrong, I’m worried about complications I haven’t even thought of yet. I spend a lot of time pacing my house and yard, hoping that Peter’s spirit can help where my hands are tied.
Rich Crook (from the Best Friends Animal Society in Utah) is up in the air over the Middle East, where it is the middle of the night. A brief stopover in Kuwait turns into a couple days of layover while TMG makes last-minute adjustments on the ground in Baghdad. He is given shelter by the PAWS rescue organization, and puts up with my frantic phone calls day and night. He is ever the cheerleader, ever the calming, positive presence. “We’re going to get this done, Carey. It’s happening.”
While Rich stands at the ready in Kuwait, TMG tries to wrangle both of the dogs. I almost have a heart attack when Peter from TMG calls me to tell me that his men were only able to retrieve Mama from the base and get her to a secure location. When they went to find the dogs to administer the vaccines, the puppy was nowhere to be found.
Immediately, all rational thought flies from my mind. Of course I know the incredible dangers that these men are facing and the seemingly limitless generosity they are displaying for me, a stranger they’d not be able to pick out in a crowd. They owe me nothing, and I owe them everything. But I am not thinking about that as I cry and beg Peter to go back and get the puppy. “Please. You can’t leave him there. Please go back.”
For some reason, Peter relents, and I try to pull myself together to thank him. The TMG team goes back once again, across the desert and through all sorts of dangers clear and unseen. Thankfully no one is hurt, and they are able to retrieve Boris. They send me pictures: Tough men clad in body armor, their eyes obscured by mirrored sunglasses, smiling and laughing as they play with the dogs, walking them around with leashes and collars they’ve made out of rope. I can see the effects that these dogs have on even the most experienced soldiers, their unbidden joy jumping out from the photos. CEO Gerard Righetti checks in, too, e-mailing with the touching, supportive update that he’s been keeping his young daughter apprised of the mission as a hopeful bedtime story. I know how badly he wants to give her a story with a happy ending, and it makes me feel better to know that this man is on my side.
The call comes in the middle of the night from TMG to Gryphon to get Rich on the plane. All at once sleepy and pumped full of adrenaline, Rich flies up over the mountains and through the darkness on a Gryphon plane sidelined by two military escort aircraft. The plane keeps to high altitudes to avoid missile fire, and the only light that comes through the small windows is from the softly blinking markers on the wings of the escorts.
A crackly voice comes on over the intercom to tell Rich: “Hold on tight. We’re going down.” The plane takes a nosedive into the Baghdad airport, not risking flying in low. All of the lights on the plane turn out, and they plummet toward the ground. Rich tells me later about the eerie sight of the airport: While we’re used to a million lights guiding the way from the runway to the gate, at the Baghdad airport, they are plunged into total darkness. It is another world away, in the realm of military maneuvers, stealth and studied deception.
The sun has not yet started to peek over the unfeeling steppes of the Iraqi highlands when the TMG team appears from the darkness, efficiently delivering Mama and Boris to the plane. The whole operation takes about twenty minutes, and the men disappear back into the unbroken dawn in silence as the plane takes off — with no lights on — and begins the return journey to Kuwait.
Once they are in the air, Rich is able to let the dogs out of their crates and give them food and water and see how they are doing. Mama and Boris are in rough shape. Both animals are dehydrated, emaciated, and covered in welts and bald patches from a scabies infection. Afterward, Rich admits to us that he was afraid they wouldn’t survive the trip to America. He says without hesitation that if they had spent even a few more days in Baghdad, they would have been done for, gone forever like Peter.
Once in Kuwait, Rich transfers with the dogs to a commercial airline, where they must be put in the cargo hold. It’s dark down there, and the dogs are already considerably traumatized by the flight, but Rich has no choice but to comply — the dogs are way too big to fly with the passengers. He accompanies them into the hold, where it’s cold and loud, the roaring of the engines shaking the floor. He makes sure they are as comfortable as possible, loading their crates up with blankets to keep them warm and coaxing them to drink as much water as possible. He tells me he is worried sick that they won’t make it to Washington, D.C. Up in the passenger cabin, Rich doesn’t sleep a wink on the long journey — he stares out the window and hopes against hope that the dogs can hang on just a little longer.
Once the plane lands at Dulles Airport in D.C., Rich goes down to the cargo hold to see the dogs, who are blessedly still breathing. They are met at the gate by Senator Levin’s assistant, Justin Harlem, who is there to help us clear another hurdle. Normally, the Centers for Disease Control requires a thirty-day quarantine for any animals coming into the United States. But Rich has made it clear to Justin that this won’t be an option. Justin explains the situation to the CDC, and based on our promises and his affidavit that we will keep them in a home quarantine for thirty days, they are allowed to go on to Michigan as an exception.
Like everyone else who meets the dogs, Justin is immediately touched by their spirit. He brings toys and treats for them, and kneels down on the pavement to greet them. They take to him immediately and get a few last bits of love from one of their many guardian angels before they join Rich and Best Friends photographer Molly Wald for the final leg of their journey.
The dogs have acclimated to Rich during their long journey, but Molly and Rich are both surprised by how quickly they accept new people. They bond with Molly instantly, trusting her implicitly as they have done with the men from TMG, Rich, and Justin. Every person these dogs come into contact with sees what Peter saw — how special and loving and healing they are. It’s clear from their demeanor how much time Peter spent socializing hem and getting them comfortable with human touch — for feral street dogs from Baghdad, they are both trusting, wriggly love bugs.
“I’ve never seen rescue dogs adjust to new people so quickly,” Rich tells me, and I think about how it’s a testament to all the love they’ve been shown in their short, often difficult lives. These dogs are now on a journey of love: Not just because of Peter, or the people they will meet over the next few days — but also because of hundreds of men and women they’ll never know who gave all that they could: their time, their money, their thoughts and prayers. Their lives are miraculous.
“How are they doing so far?” I ask. “They’re taking it all in stride,” he says. “I don’t know, it’s strange. It’s almost as if this was something they were expecting.”
Molly and Rich herd the dogs into a van, and they take off to the north. As they reach the northern border of Pennsylvania, they stop for the night at a Motel 6, where Rich brings them inside. He calls me on the phone and describes the incredible sight to me, and I can hear their excited barking in the background. The dogs have never been inside a building before, let alone a motel. They explore the whole room: Boris bounds up onto the bedspread while Mama sniffs the corners; they roll around on the carpet; they look quizzically at the television; they are warm and comfortable. Molly and Rich look on with concern as they both scratch and claw at the raw wounds all over their bodies, and wrangle them into the tub to give them their first bath. Rich e-mails me adorable pictures of the furry mongrels, covered in medicated soap and tongues lolling out, splashing water all over Rich and Molly.
When the dogs are all dry and ready for bed, Rich clicks off the lights, and each pup curls up on the soft carpet, a feeling unlike anything they’ve ever felt before.
I wonder if they know where they’re heading.
About the authors: Carey Neesley is a hospice social worker with an M.S.W. from Wayne State University. She lives in Michigan with her son, Patrick. Michael Levin is a New York Times bestselling author. He lives with his wife and four children in Orange County, California.
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