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Soldier's Afghan dog story comes back to bite

Don’t ask, don’t tell? Pets are forbidden – but the rules are often overlooked in Afghanistan and Iraq.

By Lawrence LernerContributor / March 3, 2009



Southbury, Conn.

US Army Staff Sgt. Dan Barker remembers when he first met Jack. The Special Forces medic and his team were securing an abandoned village in southern Afghanistan last June when they entered a compound. The desert sun was beating down upon them, and pomegranates crunched underfoot. With two men behind him, Sergeant Barker warily inched through the doorway to a small, dark room, rifle cocked, and quickly surveyed the scene for anything hostile.

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What he found would change his life.

There, in the corner, lay a filthy, emaciated puppy atop a pile of grain. The malnourished dog lifted its head and glanced over as Barker searched the room hurriedly. Forty minutes later, after securing the rest of the village with his team, Barker circled around to the room, placed his gun on the ground and knelt to engage the dog.

“He was awake and curious and came over to me easily,” says the soldier, who scooped up the dog for a three-hour ride back to his base.

In the ensuing weeks, the Hackensack, N.J., native put his medical skills to work on behalf of the 6-week-old pup, whose floppy ears and auburn “eye patch” made him irresistible even to a second-tour veteran. Little did the rugged soldier know how important Jack would become for him. “The only two things I looked forward to coming back from missions were getting on the computer to talk to [his wife] Lisa and getting back with Jack,” says Barker. “It was great to come back from missions and have him there waiting for me.”

Now, before you start feeling too warm and fuzzy, be warned: Regulations were violated here. The heartwarming tale has some rough edges. Barker, who returned to his base in Ft. Bragg, N.C., in late January, is under threat of punishment for having had the dog in Afghanistan and for telling various news outlets how Jack wiggled his way not only into the hearts of an Army unit, but into a trip home to the US.

American soldiers are forbidden, for health and security reasons, to adopt dogs in Afghanistan and Iraq. But in a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” way, adopting dogs is common practice for soldiers and often overlooked by commanders.

“I can tell you that this [Monitor] story won’t help Sergeant Barker,” Maj. Chris Augustine, a Special Forces press officer, warned the Monitor in a phone interview. “He’s in some trouble [for the stories already published elsewhere] .... Nothing has been done to him at this point. As for the future, I can’t speculate.”

• • •

For Barker, a lean, square-jawed soldier with an easy smile, nursing Jack back to health (which included getting the dog vaccinated) cemented their relationship while the two were stationed in southern Afghanistan. Once Jack’s health improved, Barker shared his pancakes, eggs, and bacon with him every morning, and bunked with him every night. When the soldier went on missions, Jack stayed in Barker’s room back at the base. He slept only on Barker’s bed.

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