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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.

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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.”

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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.