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 , Contributor

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.

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.

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“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.

When Barker returned, the homecoming was always sweet, recalled a fellow soldier who would be interviewed only if his name wasn’t used because of the heat on Barker. “We get a lot of close calls on missions. You come home and go from being in a normal bad mood after days of firefights to seeing Dan with a big smile and Jack kissing him all over,” he said in a phone interview. “Dan was real happy, and Jack really became part of our team.”

That exuberance was vital for Barker, suggested Lisa, who has remained in North Carolina with their two Chihuahuas since Barker returned from his first Afghan deployment in October 2007. She is acutely aware of the loneliness, stress, and perhaps trauma her husband and his teammates have faced.

“War’s hard, to say the least, and these guys get cut off emotionally while they’re over in Afghanistan,” she said in an interview here in Connecticut, where she and Barker and their dogs visited relatives in February.

Barker himself is more circumspect about the horrors of war: “Look. There’s times to deal with it. Over there’s not the time. You gotta be in a certain mind-set, be ready and alert at all times. It’s exhausting. You try to block stuff from really affecting you.”

For US soldiers dealing with combat stress miles away from loved ones, it’s common for four-legged companions to bring nurture and comfort, say animal-rights groups and service members like Lt. Col. Jay Kopelman, a retired marine. His 2006 book, “From Baghdad, With Love,” chronicles his bond with Lava, a pup he rescued from the rubble of Fallujah, Iraq.

“An animal provides a sense of home and normalcy,” says Mr. Kopelman. “It’s something else to focus on and care for when the shooting is done at the end of the day.”

In 2000, however, the US Central Command (USCENTCOM) banned adoption of stray animals by personnel serving overseas. Violations are punishable by administrative action or even criminal prosecution, says Maj. Joe Kloppel, a USCENTCOM spokesman. “A primary reason [for the rule] is health concerns,” he says. “Having stray animals in confined areas where service members are living, eating, and drinking is definitely an issue. There are probably other reasons for the ban – having to do with force readiness or other issues – but that depends on where you are on the ground.”

Indeed, animals not under strict controls could pose security risks. IEDs (improvised explosive devices), for example, have been planted on dead animals in Iraq.

But commanders often overlook the ban, say those who have worked in or with the military in Afghanistan and Iraq. Monitor correspondents embedded in those places say many small bases adopt dogs as morale boosters.

The military doesn’t officially acknowledge this. Lt. Col. Bradley Lowell, a press officer for USCENTCOM, explained in an e-mail: “Bottom line, local commanders are responsible for educating their troops about the order. They are also accountable for enforcing it.”

But it’s not always so black and white.

“The military tolerates adopted pets. I saw it when I was there [in Iraq]....” says Kopelman. “I worked with commanders who had adopted cats and were feeding them several times a day. Some officers make a big deal of it, but many don’t.”

• • •

Pet adoption in the military is common enough that the SPCA International helps soldiers ship dogs back to the US. In the year since it started, the program – Operation Baghdad Pups – has received 200 requests from soldiers in Iraq and 40 from Afghanistan, says Stephanie Scroggs, the group’s communications director.

As Barker’s second deployment to Afghanistan wound down last fall, he was determined to bring Jack home, too. He contacted Tigger House – an Afghan animal shelter run by a US nonprofit – which helps arrange shipment of soldiers’ pets from Afghanistan to the US.

To raise the $4,000 for Jack’s trip, Barker turned to Dogpile.com – a metasearch engine company. The website’s Search & Rescue program agreed in December to fund Jack and a dog belonging to Barker’s teammate, Sgt. 1st Class Adam Krause.

The dogs left the base Dec. 11 and traveled via Kabul, Pakistan, and London, arriving Dec. 20 in New York. Barker followed, reuniting with wife Lisa, Jack, and Chihuahuas on Jan. 23 at home in North Carolina. But when Dogpile promoted the story to the media and Barker’s interviews were broadcast on North Carolina TV stations in February, the military’s ban on pets came back to bite him. Barker’s commanders met with him to consider a fitting punishment for adopting and keeping a pet while serving in Afghanistan and for talking to the press without a public affairs officer present.

Barker, who’d initially spoken to the Monitor before he knew he was in trouble, explained on the phone more recently that he’d thought he was permitted to speak to the press as long as he steered clear of mission-critical information. Dogpile, as well as Barker himself, asked the Monitor not to repeat his already widely broadcast tale for fear it might harm his career.

But Barker seemed to have mixed feelings about this latest turn of events: “Most people don’t see anything wrong [with soldiers having pets], but some do. This is a good story, and could have been OK if handled differently, but I guess I went about things in the wrong way.”

Monitor staff writer Gordon Lubold, at the Pentagon, and correspondent Tom A. Peter, in Baghdad, contributed to this report.

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