Craig Grossi, 34, is a former Marine who served in Afghanistan. His book, "Craig & Fred: A Marine, A Stray Dog, and How They Rescued Each Other," was just released by HarperCollins. A native of Burke, Va., Grossi splits his time between Washington and Maine.
I was sort of expecting a sappy book about a veteran and his dog, but that's not what this is at all.
Yeah, our story is unique, and I wanted that to shine through. So I avoided reading any book that was kind of similar, and I avoided reading other military memoirs. I wanted it to be my voice, my story. If I had walked into the publisher's office and heard them, say "Oh, this is just like 'Marley & Me,' " I probably would have walked out. I wanted them to understand: No, this is not like those books.
What was your job in Afghanistan?
I was an intelligence collector. I don't go into a lot of details in the book because some of it is sensitive. I had to get the book cleared by the [Department of Defense]. I didn't put in stuff about training and tactics.
When did you go to Afghanistan?
Early August 2010, and I stayed about eight months.
How long are you there before you see Fred?
A little over a month. We were sent north into the Green Zone. There had been no coalition presence or held ground there. That was our task. Our first day we expected to get attacked. We saw hundreds of villagers carrying everything they could on their backs. And that was scary for us. They were getting out of the battlefield. A couple hours later we had our first attack. There were 250 to 300 fighters around our position. That went on for days, and in the middle of all that was Fred. I thought he was an interesting-looking dog. He had short little legs and was running around during the day. And I'm a big softy, so I wanted to check him out. I had a piece of beef jerky, and as I walk over to him he started wagging his tail, and that stopped me in my tracks. It was so bizarre because it was the opposite of what I expected. That is one of the real anchors of the book and Fred's message in general: stubborn positivity. When you have every reason in the world to be negative and let circumstances dictate your attitude, you can still wag your tail. It's a message to all of us: It's not what happens to you, it's how you react. And then he just followed me, and one of the Marines said, "Looks like you found a friend." And I thought he said "Fred," so that's what I called him.
Did you decide right away that you were going to bring him back to the States?
It was probably week three where I thought, This dog is too cool to leave behind. But I left it up to him. I needed a big sign. Before we extracted I told Fred, "If you follow me to the helicopter and you're not scared off by the rotors and the noise and you follow me to the bird, I'll be ready." I had a 50-50 feeling about it. Because I didn't know how I was going to get him home. Part of me honestly hoped he didn't follow me. But the helicopter came in, and I went running toward it, and then I felt a little poke at my heel and there he was. The master sergeant was behind me, and he was like, "We're doing this!" and so we took him with us to Camp Leatherneck.
It was sort of against the rules for you to bring Fred back to the States.
Yeah, I worked in a gray area. [Laughs.] My sister sent me the forms. I essentially just forged them. Well, I completed the forms — that's what I should say. And he was on the next flight home.
A fter you sent Fred home, you were injured in Afghanistan.
Yeah, I got hit with the brunt of a rocket blast. A bunch of stuff hit me in the back of the head, and the blast knocked me out. They medevaced me later that night to Camp Leatherneck, which is a massive base, because I had a brain injury. But I recovered in about a month and was back in the field.
What was your worst moment there?
One patrol we lost two guys. A kid I had just met the night before who was a brave young guy. And then on our way back to base we were trying to get through hip-deep mud, and we got to a bridge that crossed a huge canal. We had no other way to cross, and it was pretty much known there was going to be an IED on that bridge. My friend Justin volunteered to check the bridge. So he swept his way up and then got on his hands and knees to check for wires. He got half the way up the bridge and signaled to his partner that he found something. He stood up and turned around, and when he stood up it triggered the pressure plate. It blew him pretty far and took both his legs. We did everything we could, and we kept him going as long as we could. But it was a really bad day.
You finished your eight months, and then you go back home. What was the reunion with Fred like?
It was awesome. I showed up at Reagan [National Airport], and there was a huge welcome party, and it was great and overwhelming. But I really wanted to see Fred. He was at my dad's in the basement. I came downstairs, and I can hear his tail whacking against the crate. And then when he sees me he just stops. I've never heard a dog gasp before, but I swear he did. He was so excited. I just laid down and he went nuts.
How did Fred rescue you?
He does it kind of constantly. I got out, and within a couple of months I had a job lined up with a government contractor. I didn't want to admit that I had been affected or changed by Afghanistan. But deep down I was really frustrated and really angry, and my brain had been rattled. And to go from combat operations to boardrooms and spreadsheets was really a kick in the gut. So coming home to Fred was what kept me going.
I'd walk in the door, and he'd practically throw my running shoes at me. I'd get out of my suit and tie as fast as I could, and we'd run down the hill and around the monuments and spend as much time outside as possible, and that would get me through the next day at work. Just how energetic and positive and happy he is is contagious. I rescued Fred one time, but he rescues me every day.