By Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 20, 2005
Laurel lawyer John E. Smathers, a captain in the Army Reserve, returned from a year in Iraq with a broken arm, a wrecked knee and a chest full of medals.
During his tour, Smathers helped thwart a bank robbery and assisted in recovering stolen Iraqi artwork. He survived an ambush and a high-speed auto crash.
But when he got back in March 2004, he was determined to complete a final mission: to rescue Scout, a dog he and other soldiers had adopted, from the increasingly bloody streets of Baghdad and bring him to his Howard County home. Scout was resolute, loyal. So was Smathers.
For 17 months, Smathers engaged in a campaign that involved intelligence gathering, secret Iraqi contacts and a foiled border-crossing into Jordan.
Finally, in late August, Scout was driven some 280 miles from Baghdad to Basra, where he was delivered to a British woman who runs an animal shelter in Kuwait.
Within days, Scout was on the tarmac at Dulles International Airport, where he was met by Smathers, dressed in desert camouflage so the dog would recognize him. Scout scampered out of his cage and went straight to Smathers, resting at his feet.
For Smathers, it was a rewarding end to a difficult quest.
"It was frustrating. Every door I tried was getting slammed in my face," he said. "I just kept knocking. As long as Scout was alive, I'd keep trying."
Smathers, 47, was a member of the Riverdale-based 422nd Civil Affairs Battalion, attached to the 3rd Infantry Division. His unit was among the troopsthat invaded Iraq in 2003.
After U.S. forces took control of the Baghdad airport in early April, Smathers's unit needed a place to stay for a few days and settled on an old catering building. Inside, Smathers and his fellow soldiers encountered a Canaan dog about 2 1/2 months old.
"He was alone, confused, didn't know what was going on," Smathers recalled.
The unit adopted the puppy, which Capt. Kevin Guidry named Scout. When the unit left the airport for Baghdad, some 12 miles away, the soldiers took him along.
In Baghdad, the unit took over a two-story, three-bedroom house near the Tigris River. Worried about attacks by enemy fighters, the soldiers slept on the roof, their M-16s at their sides, while Scout stayed in front of the building.
"Scout was our early-warning system," Smathers said. "If someone came by who he didn't recognize, he'd start barking.''
Smathers and Scout bonded. At 5:30 a.m. most days, Scout would put his paw through the mosquito net Smathers slept inside. Smathers would awaken, and the two would run by the Tigris.
"Sometimes he'd jump into the river. I'd yank him out by the scruff of his neck," Smathers said.
At one point, Scout became gravely ill with parvovirus, a disease that leaves dogs dehydrated. For four days, Smathers and another soldier took turns administering intravenous antibiotics.
Scout and Smathers were inseparable until Smathers and other soldiers were ambushed Feb. 21, 2004.
Smathers was in a convoy of three sport-utility vehicles headed to villages south of Baghdad. The soldiers planned to assess whether villagers had enough food and water.
Just south of the city, the convoy was ambushed by fighters shooting AK-47s. The driver of the SUV that Smathers was in floored it, and the vehicle overturned at 100 mph, landing right-side up. The Iraqi translator sitting next to Smathers had been shot in the head and killed.
Smathers had braced his arms against the SUV's roof, and his left forearm had snapped.
Smathers crawled out, and the attackers left. Three weeks later, Smathers was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, recuperating from the broken arm and a damaged right knee.
Via e-mail, Smathers kept in touch with members of his unit. One soldier wrote that for the first two weeks Smathers was gone, Scout remained outside the front door of the house, as if waiting for the captain.
Eventually, Smathers's unit left the house, and Scout was on his own. In an e-mail, a soldier told Smathers that Scout had been picked up by a dogcatcher and was going to be euthanized, but that he escaped by digging under a fence.
For four months, Smathers sent e-mails, sometimes with photos of Scout, to every soldier and civilian he knew in the area, asking if they had seen Scout. By then, Smathers was being helped by Bonnie Buckley, a Massachusetts woman who runs a Web site dedicated to helping soldiers rescue animals overseas.
On Aug. 5, 2004, a soldier sent an e-mail to Smathers and Buckley. "Guys, I see Scout almost every day," the e-mail said. "No one is taking care of him. He is looking pretty skinny, and a vet needs to look at his left eye.'' The soldier wrote that Scout hung out near the pool of a large house.
Smathers e-mailed a soldier and asked that Scout be captured, caged and taken to the Baghdad Zoo, where Smathers had become friendly with a veterinarian. Within days, Scout was at the zoo, where he would stay for a year.
Smathers couldn't get Scout out on a military flight because U.S. soldiers are not allowed to bring back animals from foreign soil, he said.
Just after Scout was taken to the zoo, Smathers cooked up a scheme: An Iraqi picked up Scout and drove him eight hours to the Jordanian border. The plan was to drive Scout to Amman and put him on a plane to the United States. But Jordanian border guards turned Scout away. Smathers's Iraqi contact had to drive back to Baghdad.
Smathers said he could not identify his Iraqi contacts because their lives would be in jeopardy if insurgents learned that they were helping an American.
Finally, Smathers said, Buckley found the British woman who runs an animal shelter in Kuwait, and she was willing to help. The woman took Scout to Kuwait, put him on a commercial flight to the Netherlands and then to Dulles, where Smathers met him Aug. 22.
Scout's life is much different now. Every Sunday, Smathers's six sisters bring their young children to his one-acre property, and the kids frolic with Scout.
Smathers is taking pains not to lose sight of Scout again. He erected an invisible fence, with an electric current, around his property and outfitted the dog with a tag that reads "Scout. IRAQ WAR DOG."