By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 15, 2008
He hesitated just a bit as he rounded a corner inside Dulles International Airport yesterday and spotted the flock of television cameras and cooing journalists awaiting him. Then, with posture erect like a soldier's, he trotted straight toward the action -- he was used to bomb blasts and gunfire, after all, so this was nothing.
Post-escape from Baghdad and fresh off a 13-hour flight from Kuwait, Charlie the border collie mix actually seemed to be smiling for the crowd.
Five months after the SPCA International received a plea from American soldiers hoping to transfer their beloved Iraqi stray to U.S. terrain, the 9-month-old mutt became the first beneficiary of the animal advocacy organization's effort to rescue pets from the war zones where they provide solace to service members. Charlie eventually will live in Phoenix with one of his caretaker soldiers.
It being Valentine's Day, the SPCA dished out the emotional hyperbole. Charlie's bond with his caretakers, the organization said, "is the ultimate love story between a man and his dog." The soldiers, too, were effusive.
"We can't wait for him to get his first taste of the good old USA," one wrote in an e-mail to the SPCA. "We especially can't wait until we can see him again."
Parts of Charlie's back story were obscured to protect those he left behind. In his case, they were U.S. soldiers based at a Baghdad outpost -- the SPCA identified the unit only as Charlie Company -- who were barred by military rules from keeping pets. But when the soldiers came upon a flea-infested and starving puppy while on patrol, they could not resist sharing their affection and their ready-to-eat meals.
One soldier, identified by the organization as "Sgt. Watson," sent e-mails to animal rescue groups. The SPCA took up the case, and Operation Baghdad Pups was born.
But first, program manager Terri Crisp interviewed Watson in Phoenix when he was on leave in October. Watson wanted to adopt Charlie at the end of his tour in March.
"He was a soldier and tough, and toward the end, I said, 'Why are we bringing Charlie home?' And he said, 'Because I made a promise' " not to abandon the dog, Crisp said yesterday, her voice choked with tears.
Eleven other dogs and two cats adopted by service members in Iraq or Afghanistan are in the pipeline for rescue, said Stephanie Scroggs, a spokeswoman for SPCA International. The SPCA will pay about $4,000 per rescue, Scroggs said. She acknowledged that the sum could aid many more stateside animals but said the program also supports the troops.
"It's too much to ask them to leave, go to Iraq and then to desert their companion animals," Scroggs said.
To prime Charlie for departure, rabies and distemper vaccines were shipped to Baghdad, where a veterinarian at the Ministry of Agriculture was prepared to administer them. Although the soldiers lived near the ministry, Crisp said, they needed to generate a "mission" to justify the visit because they are not allowed to have pets.
After a 30-day quarantine, a cloak-and-dagger turnover was arranged so Charlie would not come to the attention of the soldiers' senior officers. This week, a quartet of U.S. security contractors picked up Charlie at his outpost and took him to Baghdad International Airport. Crisp, meanwhile, flew United Airlines to Kuwait, then Gryphon Airlines to Baghdad. When her plane touched down, the contractors carried Charlie in his crate across the tarmac, and he was soon on his way to the United States.
Once at Dulles, Crisp said, she e-mailed the Charlie Company, "to let the company know that Charlie has put paws on American soil." Soon Charlie was striding with Crisp into the baggage claim area, his still-dingy white tail curved like a plume over the camouflage cape that draped his back.
There to welcome him was former Navy reservist Mark Feffer, accompanied by Cinnamon, a refugee dog Feffer brought home from Afghanistan in 2006. Cinnamon got lost in transit for six weeks, prompting Feffer to launch a rescue mission that his sister, Christine Sullivan, chronicled in a book titled "44 Days Out of Kandahar."
"They give so much support to the guys that are over there," Feffer, who lives in Annapolis, said of war-zone pets.
As the humans spoke, Charlie, perhaps feeling amorous on Valentine's Day, eagerly edged toward Cinnamon. Regal and aloof, Cinnamon leaned toward a row of soft seats, where she later fell asleep.
Charlie, too, quickly sprawled in slumber on the shiny linoleum.
"Jet lag," Crisp pronounced.
Much lay ahead: A dog spa appointment to wash away desert dust. A night at a hotel. In coming days, a vet checkup, a flight to Los Angeles and a drive to Phoenix, where he will be cared for until Watson returns from Iraq.
But first, Charlie was scheduled to stroll around the Mall.
"It's probably going to be a real shock for him to see such beauty and great monuments," Watson wrote in an e-mail to Scroggs yesterday at 2:14 a.m., "after knowing nothing but the slums of Baghdad."