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wags - From Baghdad with Love

  By: AJ Mistretta

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With Love from Baghdad

The section in the U.S. Central Command’s General Order 1-A is explicit. Prohibited: “Adopting as pets or mascots, caring for, or feeding any type of domestic or wild animal.”
The rule is one of the many that American troops serving abroad are innately aware of. Orders are part of a soldier’s life, meant to be lived, breathed and obeyed. When Lt. Colonel Jay Kopelman entered Fallujah in November 2004 at the height of the fight for the Iraqi city, he had no idea he would end up breaking an order in such a direct way.
Kopelman had been charged with training a group of Iraqi soldiers, part of the effort to form a new national army that would eventually take over from American forces. It wasn’t going well. The men were scared and noncompliant, a situation made worse by the language barrier. When Kopelman arrived at a house in the city being used as a command post, he was exhausted and edgy.
Lava wasted no time introducing himself, charging the Marine upon entry with a pathetic growl. Kopelman stomped his foot to quiet the pint-sized fur ball down. “There’s fear in his eyes despite the bravado,” Kopelman writes. “He’s only a puppy, too young to know how to mask it, so I can see how bravery and terror trap him on all sides while testosterone and adrenaline compete in the meantime for every ounce of his attention. Recognize it right away.”
Just days before, the Lava Dogs, a Marine unit based in Hawaii, had taken control of the compound. They discovered the puppy, only a few weeks old but spunky and looking for fun and a fight. They gave him part of their rations, let him bite at their boot laces and tried to ignore that they were violating the rules.
To understand the rationale for the order in GO-1A, one need only examine the landscape of war-torn Iraq. Canines are not kept as pets in traditional Iraqi society, but rather as working animals for sheepherders and the like. Once the war began, the number of stray dogs exploded. With strays on the rise and no one to care for them, dogs turned to eating the corpses that littered the streets. Diseases spread. For an efficient military, the simplest solution is to shoot the strays on site.
When Kopelman asks the men why they didn’t get rid of the puppy instead of taking care of him and giving him a name, the responses are mumbled. To Kopelman, the real answer is clear. “They had enough pictures already from Fallujah to torture them slowly for the rest of their lives; they didn’t need any more. Warriors, yes—puppy killers, no.”
Kopelman isn’t ready with excuses for why he decided to play into the plan. “It’s not like you wake up one morning and say ‘I’m going to violate the regulations,’” he says. But in an intense combat atmosphere where death is faced head-on every day, something, he says, has to give.
“When you find a dog in an environment like that…he brings, for some period of time, a bit of normalcy to your life. He lets you know that at the end of the day things are okay. That there is mom, apple pie and Chevrolet at the end of the road.”
Kopelman made a promise to the young Marines in the unit: he would personally make sure Lava got back to the United States. It was no easy promise and one he wasn’t entirely sure he would be able to keep. Today he says he isn’t sure what would have happened if his commanders had learned about Lava.
The events that led to the puppy’s arrival in the United States read like an espionage novel. In the ensuing weeks and months after his unofficial enlistment, Lava was cared for by the troops providing security for the base’s commanding general. Eventually he went to live with a National Public Radio reporter stationed in Baghdad. Meanwhile pressure was mounting on Kopelman to come up with a plan to get the dog back to the states as the time neared for him to return home.
The Marines who had discovered him wanted to send Lava back to their home base in Hawaii. But a strict quarantine on animals going to the island state rendered that scenario virtually impossible.
What was clear though was that the dog needed an international passport declaring a clean bill of health to get out of Iraq. Assistance came from a kindhearted Iraqi man who successfully worked the system with the help of several veterinarians. Eventually, with his puppy passport, Lava traveled from Baghdad to Aman, Jordan and from there to Chicago. Once in the United States he made his way to San Diego to live with Kopelman.
Looking back, Kopelman seems a bit astounded that he and the others who helped were able to pull it all off. “I think the message of the book is that you can never give up,” he says over the phone, Lava dancing around him trying to steal his attention. “No matter how bleak things seem, you just don’t give up. Human will is a very powerful force and I think it was sheer will that we were able to get him out Iraq and into the United States.”
But Kopelman says more than anything Lava’s story illustrates a truth about the armed forces that sometimes gets hidden in the backdrop of battle. “Marines are trained to shoot and kill, but we also take care of things,” he says. “We take care of people and animals because we have a history of taking up for the little guy.”
He continues, “I want people to have a deeper understanding of those who serve. People do appreciate service members but a lot of people don’t have a complete understanding of the military. While we respect the orders and respect the people who give them, we’re not automatons and we do have feelings.”
In the end, Lava’s rescue from Iraq takes on an elevated significance for all those involved in the mission. Kopelman writes in the book about his own relentless yet uneasy determination. “I want Lava to be alive. I want him to be alive because then there’s still hope that he’ll make it here to California and get to be an American dog who runs on the beach and chases the mailman instead of strangers with guns. I want him to be alive almost more than anything I can think of, which feels like a confession.”

Photographs by Cami Johnson,