Roadside bombs, blown up bridges and insurgent firefights -- these are just some of the contingencies Operation Baghdad Pups (OBP) must face to accomplish their objective. Their mission: to rescue dogs and cats befriended by U.S. military personnel while serving in the war-torn areas of Iraq and Afghanistan.
This is no small feat. Behind every mission, there are months of communication and preparation. There are also guidelines that OBP must adhere to in order to bring animals into the United States from other countries, including proof of vaccinations and a 30-day minimum quarantine period for each animal.
On average, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals International (or SPCA International), which runs OBP, receives three to four new requests every week from soldiers in Iraq, and is currently working on over 100 active cases. Most OBP rescue missions occur in Iraq, but they do get periodic requests from U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. “We've actually seen somewhat of an increase [from Afghanistan] because there has been a bigger buildup of [U.S.] troops there,” said Terri Crisp, Operation Baghdad Pups' program manager.
Many of the U.S. soldiers who befriend these dogs and cats while serving in the Middle East are forced to do it in secrecy. General Order 1A (pronounced one-alpha), which governs the conduct of individuals while serving in the military, prohibits soldiers from befriending, adopting, or providing food or water to either domesticated or wild animals. “And because the military can’t offer any assistance in transporting them from within Iraq or Afghanistan to the United States, that’s where [OBP] comes in,” said Crisp. “We provide the logistical coordination. We get [the animals] picked up wherever they are and get them to the airport to fly them back to the United States.”
There have been 15 missions since 2008. The first mission took place last Valentine's Day, when Charlie, a Border Collie mix, arrived in the United States, much to the delight of U.S. Army Sgt. Edward Watson. Returning from patrol on the outskirts of Baghdad, Watson came upon a malnourished puppy that was extremely close to death. After rehabilitating Charlie, Watson fell in love with the dog and contacted Operation Baghdad Pups for help.
Jessica Drozdowski, a Massachusetts Army National Guard Specialist, told SPCA International, “In terms of morale, there isn’t really too much that boosts it here [in Iraq]. A deployment really does a number on your body, mind, and heart. We’re all away from our loved ones, and that’s tough. But, at the end of a long, hard, hot day, it’s refreshing to come around the corner and have someone waiting for you, making you smile. Okay, so that someone has four legs, but so what? It still puts a smile on our face.”
Crisp has been a witness to the strong bonds made between these animals and soldiers. “You know, military people are trained to be tough, and yet, they are human beings. Over [in Iraq and Afghanistan] it’s kind of hard to find somebody that will sit down and listen to you and let you cry or give you a hug…because everyone is carrying their own load and can’t take it anymore,” said Crisp. “Many of them have left dogs or cats behind that they’re attached to, and there’s a void…so when they find this dog or cat, it becomes really special to them. It makes their experience over there more complete.”
According to a November 2007 CBS News report, at least 120 Americans who served in the U.S. military killed themselves every week in 2005. That's at least 6,256 veteran suicides in one year, more than twice the rate of other Americans.
The benefits these animals bring, therefore, are more than just what they can do for on-duty military servicemen in the Middle East. Once these soldiers get back to their homes in the U.S., the dogs and cats help ease the men and women back into their daily home routine.
Unfortunately, the extreme heat of the Middle East region forces Operation Baghdad Pups to limit missions from January through May only. Since beginning the program, Crisp and her team have brought over a total of 75 animals (8 cats, the rest dogs). The overall cost of an OBP mission can be quite high -- about $4,000 per animal. This includes the cost of transportation, vaccinations, and the fee for the security company which accompanies OBP's team members to and from the pickup location. Because OBP is entirely funded by donations, they are always open to support from pet lovers worldwide.
No one is more thrilled for Operation Baghdad Pup's success than Crisp. "Overall we've been extremely, extremely fortunate. I've got a lot more animals out of Iraq than anyone ever expected [OBP] would be able to do."
To learn about how you can help OBP, make donations, or get involved with the program, go to www.SPCA.com, where there are links to all the various SPCA International programs, including Operation Baghdad Pups.