Soldier reunions are always emotionally charged, but this one more than most – National Guard soldiers from New York have been reunited with a stray, mixed-breed mama and the seven puppies they befriended while on patrol in Afghanistan.
Their joyful get-together was made possible by a Long Island rescue organization Guardians of Rescue, whose motto is “Paws of War – No Buddy Left Behind.”
“They really became part of the family to us,” 1st Lt. Joseph LaPenta.
The stray dog they called Sheba became their friend in January when they arrived in Afghanistan. She occasionally joined them on patrol, would wait for them to return home at night, and chased away other strays she deemed a threat to the men.
In March, Sheba had a litter of seven puppies. She was weakened from the ordeal, and the soldiers nursed her back to health by feeding her some of their beef jerky and MRE (meals ready to eat) rations. They also had relatives back home send bags of dog food.
But as part of the US draw-down, the group learned their base would be closing, and their time in the country would be at a close.
“It really broke our hearts that we might have to leave them there” LaPenta said.
So Staff Sgt. Edwin Caba contacted an old high school teacher who was able to put him in touch with Guardians of Rescue, who collects money to bring back dogs from war zones.
“We won’t turn our back on the servicemen and we won’t turn our back on the dogs,” said Guardians of Rescue president Robert Misseri.
They worked with Nowzad, a Kabul-based organization that arranged to have the dogs brought to the US. Misseri estimates the cost of transporting each dog from a war zone to be about $4,000. This includes vaccinations, health care, and food and lodging during the dogs’ 30-day quarantine. Money is still being collected to pay for Sheba and her pups.
The effort to bring Sheba and the dogs to their new homes was made worth it on Wednesday night when they arrived at JFK International Airport. They were greeted by an eruption of cheers and applause.
“For this to happen now, leashes in their hands, they’re kissing their faces,” Misseri said with amazement. “This is what we do.”
The six-month-old puppies, named Breezy, Buckeye, Cadence, Harris, Jack, Rocky and Sarah, will be adopted by the soldiers. Two soldiers are taking two dogs, while three others are going home with one dog. Sheba’s fate is still undecided. She may be trained as a service dog to help veterans battling PTSD, but according to GoR Vice President Dori Scofield, it is too soon to know if she would qualify for training.
Caba, whose home was destroyed by Superstorm Sandy, and has just complete his third tour of duty, said the dogs helped take his mind away from troubles at home.
“It’s nice to have something to pass the time, get rid of the stress,” he said. “We just a built a bond you can’t even describe.”