Man’s Best Friend Helps Soldiers in the Battlefield and at Home

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

When John Wallace, 43, of Babylon, N.Y., returned three years ago from his combat tour as an infantryman in Afghanistan, he felt content to be home.

But soon the divorced father of three began having nightmares. He was anxious and paranoid. He said he thought he had “intrusive thoughts” and felt like he was “legitimately crazy.”

 “Something was wrong,” he said, “No one knew how to help. Nobody knew – ‘Should we even bring it up?’ It was awkward there for awhile.”

Wallace left the military in 2011 and was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.

Wallace received counseling at a veterans’ center on Long Island, and underwent an intensive 90-day treatment program. Earlier this year, through a non-profit group called The Guardians of Rescue, he adopted a rambunctious dog named Tommy.

The Long Island-based animal rescue group is one of a handful that help bring back animals saved by soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq as the military draws down its presence. But unlike others, this group has been focusing on pairing veterans or their families with the stray animals.

Tommy was rescued in Afghanistan and kept by an Explosive Ordinance Device Unit.

Wallace read about the program and decided right away to adopt.

“He’s always here,” Wallace said of the white-haired, tan-eared pooch that is just two years old. “[As] opposed to me sitting here in my apartment by myself caught up in my thoughts. Having Tommy here — we go out, we go walking, we go to the field and play. It just became a really big part of my life as well as the rest of my family.”

(Photo: Tommy plays with his new owner, John, a veteran who deployed to Afghanistan and was diagnosed with PTSD. Caitlyn Kim/WNYC)

Wallace, who is using the GI Bill to go to college as a full-time student, wants Tommy to be officially trained as a therapy dog, so that he can help other veterans suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder

He said that while deployed his unit had three puppies that were then cared for by the unit that replaced his even though General Order No. 1, among other things, prohibits the adoption, caring for or feeding of any type of domestic or wild animal.

The enforcement of the animal provision has varied from unit to unit.

The benefit that a dog — or any pet — provides to a person suffering PTSD is unknown.

The Department of Veterans Affairs began studying 17 pairs of dogs and soldiers to examine the potential therapeutic benefit of pets on those who suffered post-war trauma, but the study hit a snag when concerns were raised about the health of the dogs at the vendor’s facility and other contract violations. 

“The health and well-being of veterans, their families, and service dogs involved in the research study remain VA’s highest priority,” a spokeswoman said. “The VA Office of Research and Development is developing a new plan to carry out this important research.”

But bringing these so-called “battle buddy” dogs to the United States from Afghanistan has been something Meredith Festa, program director for The Guardians of Rescue, has been working on for about a year.

Last year, Festa said she received a call from a relative of a soldier who was meeting a lot of resistance in trying to bring his rescued Afghan dog, Savannah, to the U.S.

Savannah was later killed in Afghanistan, but the family requested that the funds raised for Savannah be used to help bring another soldier’s dog, Trigger, to the U.S. They did, and since then the group has been flooded with request from soldiers — and sometimes even Embassy workers — in Afghanistan, and “Operation No Buddy Left Behind” began.

“It’s about giving that solider the peace of mind of knowing his dog is safe and is not going to be used as a weapon or be killed, and it’s going to have a loving family with a solider who understand how important the dog is,” Festa said.

She works with the Nowzad Shelter in Afghanistan, which was founded by former Royal British Marine Pen Farthing, to bring rescued dogs to the U.S.

Though the dogs can be adopted by anyone, she has made an effort to pair the Afghan dogs with soldiers or soldiers’ families if the service member who rescued the animal is unable to care for the pet stateside.

“That dog went through what [the soldier] went through,” she said. “It’s a different kind of relationship and it’s a bond that only someone who served in battle could really understand, which is why we try to place their dogs with military families and veterans of war.”

Festa and the group that has helped rescue 14 dogs and two cats from Afghanistan is in the midst of trying to bring another six dogs to New York.

Toby, rescued by a contractor from a burn pile in Afghanistan, is scheduled to leave Afghanistan on October 6.

A service woman currently in Afghanistan who asked her name not be used said in an email that Toby is “a bright spot and joy in a place far from anything familiar.”

She plans on adopting Toby once she returns from Afghanistan.

UPDATE: Toby has arrived in Long Island, where he'll await his soldier's return in January.

Caitlyn Kim/WNYC
John Wallace and his youngest son, Chris, take Tommy for a walk.
Caitlyn Kim/WNYC
The pooch, Tommy, Wallace says is symbolic of the dogs he took care of while in Afghanistan.
Courtesy of the Guardians of Rescue
Tommy's brother, Tony, was adopted by an Army solider named Sam, seen here with his son.
Courtesy of Guardians of Rescue
A solider plays with a group of pups during a break in Afghanistan.
Caitlyn Kim/WNYC
Meredith Festa picks up a cat named Buster and a dog named Zoe in July. They just finished the last leg of their travel from Afghanistan.
Caitlyn Kim/WNYC
Buster was one of two cats rescued in Afghanistan and sent to the U.S. with help from the Guardians of Rescue.
Caitlyn Kim/WNYC
Zoe gets out of her crate and gets a lot of attention in the parking lot of the cargo area of JFK airport.
Caitlyn Kim/WNYC
Zoe goes on a short run to stretch her legs with Guardians of Rescue volunteer Frank Floridia.
Caitlyn Kim/WNYC
Zoe gets some water and gets use to being out of her crate.
Courtesy of Guardians of Rescue/WNYC
Zoe is adopted by the father of a solider who adopted Zoe's litter mate, Lucky.


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Comments [7]

Melanie Fabian from Omaha, Ne

I want help with this wonderful program please tell me how. My adopted soldier in Afghanistan has lost four Hero's in the last month. And I heard there was a woman already over there that is looking for homes for the dogs. i just read a book called "In dogs we trust". It is beautiful and shows how our four legged friends can make a huge emotional difference for us, and for the military they can sniff out danger. Please advise.


Feb. 05 2014 11:59 PM
blewis from dallas Texas

Maria:, sweetheart you missed the whole point! These dogs become their lifesavers, their companions, that one trusted friend that no one can replace. I will continue to help bring Toby home and when he is safe here, I will find another one to support, Consider that my tythe to my Lord.

Sep. 30 2012 04:33 PM

@ Maria from Manhattan...

that is hardly the point. These soldiers (and contractors) ASKED for help saving Toby. We can hardly tell them to throw Toby back on the burn pile now can we?

Sep. 27 2012 09:43 AM
allan (in Oregon)

I've known the GI that Toby will go home with since she was 3. Once they both get stateside, I look forward to perhaps meeting Toby some day. By the looks of him I better bring a BIG dog treat.

I can't say enough good things about Meredith and Guardians of Rescue and the folks at the Nowzad shelter. When things get to this level of animal - human bonding it has a familial intimacy that few (and certainly no one w/ pets) fail to empathize with.

This is an excellent write-up by Caitlyn Kim. Thank you Caitlyn, very much.

Sep. 27 2012 12:14 AM
Meredith from Guardians of Rescue from Long Island

Here is the link to Tommy's adoption:

Here is Tommy's Rescue Story:!/photo.php?fbid=327263107327513&set=a.327259957327828.84954.107867909267035&type=3&theater

In the midst of war, a soldier hears a whimper. They pause... and see a dog. The dog is skinny, injured, and looks at them with hopeful eyes. Those eyes are a reminder of the dog they had as a child, they remember their childhood, and their loved ones back home. The soldier then bends down and scoops the dog up, and two lives are saved. In that moment, in all the chaos, amidst all the combat and destruction, a bond is formed.

These are the words of our soldiers describing their bonds with the animals they have saved. These dogs are family, comfort, reminders of home, best friends and sometimes even protectors:

“My Marines took her in and we've had her since she was about 8 weeks old. She's been a constant watchdog for us, always letting us know when strangers are near our camp. She's also been there to greet us after every mission, and has kept our spirits high during some very hard times. Alice has been one of the best things to happen to my Marines.Please help me to send my battle buddy home. “
As one soldier’s family member has told us:

“Puppies are often a bright spot in an otherwise dark time for soldiers. A special bond forms between these dogs and the soldiers who rescue them, and there have even been cases where these adopted companions have literally saved soldiers’ lives. Most often when it comes time for the soldiers to move or to return home, they are forced to leave these companions behind. After witnessing the conditions under which these dogs live and die, and the treatment they usually receive from the Afghan people who come in contact with them, the thought of leaving them behind is unconscionable to many.”

Obviously these dogs are family, reminders of home, best friends and sometimes even protectors. What can they do to save these animals? The soldiers turn to Nowzad.

Sometimes our soldiers, who can’t help saving the animals that have given them so much, are unable to offer them a home in States due to the nature of their service to our country or for other reasons. This weighs heavy on the soldier’s soul, since this dog means so much to them. Nowzad will not turn these rescues away, but the charity then needs to find a home for those who may be left behind. It’s a challenging goal for a charity struggling in a war torn country where these animals are often abused, discarded, or only valued in the miserable “sport” of dog fighting. And now, more than ever before, Nowzad needs our help to meet this goal and ensure that these animals find forever homes.

Sep. 25 2012 09:42 PM
Bogart from NYC

I think that the point is that you are supporting the troops. These are soldier's personal pets that they adopt while on deployment being reunited with them or rehomed with another soldier that understands how important that pet means. You can't just tell someone to kill there dog, and you will get them another one. That is just crazy.

Sep. 25 2012 03:48 PM
Maria from Manhattan

How crazy is it to bring stray dogs from the Middle East when we have so many pets looking for homes in the USA. This effort could be put towards a better cause for the soldiers for sure.

Sep. 25 2012 02:00 PM

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