Just a few weeks before Anna Maria Cannan’s fiancé, Chris, was deployed to a combat outpost in Afghanistan in 2010, three canine guardian angels saved a group of soldiers from a suicide bomber. Rufus grabbed the bomber’s leg while Sasha and Target started barking to wake up the soldiers. The thwarted suicide bomber blew himself up before reaching the soldiers’ living quarters, and fortunately, none of the 50 military men and women inside were killed. Sadly, heroic Sasha did not survive, and the two other brave dogs were severely injured.
But the grateful soldiers did all they could to nurse Target and Rufus back to health, and when animal-lover Chris arrived at the base, he jumped in to care for the wounded dogs and Target’s young puppies. Not surprisingly, the soldiers bonded with the dogs and benefited greatly from the sense of normalcy that caring for a pet could provide them in an otherwise foreign and hostile environment.
Chris knew he’d go back to the States eventually, and the thought of leaving the dogs behind, and in particular a little puppy he had named “Bear,” was unimaginable for the soldier. He and Anna Maria decided to try and raise enough funds to bring seven of these dogs — “The Lucky Seven” — to the USA and into loving homes.
Cannan started a Facebook page called Puppy Rescue Mission to help fundraise the effort, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. When enough money had been raised to bring the Lucky Seven to America (two of the dogs, Bear and Alphy, were adopted by Chris and Cannan themselves), Cannan knew she had to keep going and help bring other service men and women’s “battle buddies” home, believing that “no soldier should ever be faced with the decision of leaving a beloved animal [behind].”
And so from that Facebook page grew The Puppy Rescue Mission (TPRM), a public 501(c)(3) non-profit rescue group which works with and through other organizations to reunite American military men and women with the animals they care for overseas and want to bring home. But getting these dogs (and, on occasion, cats) to the United States is a considerable feat, which involves a lot of time, planning and funding. A network of dedicated volunteers helps with constant fundraising, fostering, rehoming, and all the administration/logistics that comes with bringing an animal into the USA.
Between medical treatment for sick or injured dogs, supplies, vet care (vaccinations, spay/neuter, etc.), and ground and air transport, the average cost to get a dog stateside from a country like Afghanistan is approximately $4,500. The soldier covers as much of the cost as he or she can, and TPRM does the fundraising to cover the rest.
As of today, TPRM has been able to bring 500 animals to the United States. While most come from Afghanistan, they have also rescued dogs from Kuwait, Saudia Arabia and Germany, and are currently working on bringing dogs back from Turkey and Egypt.
In Afghanistan, where dogs are seen more as pests than pets and are often used for dog fighting or target practice, the average dog will not survive past two years of age. The local population has little to no knowledge of necessary vet care and the vast majority of dogs in the country are intact strays, left to fend for themselves in unforgiving conditions. It is no surprise that many of these dogs end up hanging around military outposts.
“The dogs find our soldiers and our soldiers give them the only love that they have ever experienced, the only food they have ever been given.” Cannan says. “Why would they ever want to leave?”
But sometimes, the soldiers find the dogs.
When they heard whining coming from one of the local Afghani police barracks, two American GIs went to investigate. To their horror, they found a mutilated puppy enclosed in a burlap sack being pelted around like a soccer ball. The GIs rescued the puppy, and back at the base, they took shifts that night to try and keep him alive. Miraculously, the puppy lived, and was adopted by the team’s joint terminal attack controller (JTAC) who named him “JDAM.” And despite some initial aggressiveness, JDAM eventually learned to trust — and love — people.
JDAM joined another dog at that base, AK (Alexander Kalashnikov), a dog who soldiers credit with raising their morale at that time. AK had been brought to the base in a sack by an Afghani boy and his father who wanted to sell the young puppy, a puppy so young its eyes were barely opened. The man explained that AK’s mother had died protecting his son from a vicious stray, and although she had been used as a fighting dog, the father did not want to continue dog fighting nor pass the practice on to his son. The puppy, whose ears and tail had already been cut off for fighting, was the only thing they had of value, and the father needed the money to move his family to a safer part of Afghanistan. With help from the team’s senior medic, the soldiers took in little AK and nursed him back to health, all the while growing more and more attached to the dog.
Leaving AK and JDAM behind in Afghanistan was unthinkable for the American troops, and thanks to TPRM, both JDAM and AK were able to come to United States, and they now live with their soldiers.
From its creation just three years ago to now, the Puppy Rescue Mission shows no signs of slowing down. Cannan says that they’re growing bigger and are now rescuing animals from all over the world, ready and willing to help whenever they receive a call or email from a soldier asking to bring a beloved battle buddy home, and never wanting to have to turn anybody away. “We’ve become a worldwide organization and have helped soldiers from other countries as well,” she explains. “A soldier is a soldier, no matter where they come from.”
And to honor Sasha — the brave dog who died protecting troops from the suicide bomber — Cannan started Sasha’s Legacy, a fund to help find homes for dogs and cats who are brought to safe shelter facilities overseas by departing soldiers who are unable to personally adopt them, but who want to see them find loving forever homes in the States. “It’s our way of thanking them [the animals] for their service to our troops, and their soldiers are very relieved to know that their battle buddy gets the ‘happily ever after’ they so rightly deserve,” says Cannan.
TPRM is always in need of volunteers to assist with transport (including airport pick-ups) and to act as foster families until a soldier’s deployment ends, in addition to financial support from the public. And Cannan says that raising awareness by sharing the stories of these dogs is also a huge help. “It’s important that people know the impact these animals have on our soldiers’ lives while serving our country. These are not just stray dogs, these are our soldiers’ best friends … thousands of miles away from home.”
If you’d like to make a donation or find out more about the Puppy Rescue Mission’s inspiring work (including many more heart-warming rescue stories and reunions), please check out the website and Facebook page.
All photos used with permission from The Puppy Rescue Mission’s Facebook page.