Rescued From War: Tales of Puppy Love
March 25, 2008
By Adam Silverman
CAMBRIDGE, Vt. Cinnamon is a mixed-breed dog whose gaze, those who love her say, redefines the term puppy-dog eyes.
Photo: Navy Lt. Cmdr. Mark Feffer feeds Cinnamon in Afghanistan in May 2006. The stray dog now lives with him in Maryland. (Family photo)
Navy officer Mark Feffer of Annapolis, Md., fell in love with Cinnamon during his first few days in Afghanistan. When Feffer's tour ended, he couldn't bear to leave Cinnamon behind.
The mission to bring the animal stateside despite military regulations against doing so almost ended when the puppy went missing, but after a frantic 44-day search across Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan, the dog arrived safely in the USA.
Two years after the lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve struggled to bring the red-furred pooch home, a program called Operation Baghdad Pups is easing the process for other servicemembers who want to bring stray dogs home when they leave Iraq or Afghanistan.
Launched in November, Operation Baghdad Pups, which operates under the umbrella of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) International, has more than 30 dogs and several cats it is working to bring to the USA, program manager Terri Crisp says. The program fields two or three inquiries daily.
Crisp has made three trips to Baghdad from her home in Sacramento to fetch dogs.
"This is one of those rare instances where you're not only helping animals, you're helping our soldiers, too," Crisp says. "What better way can we say thank you?"
Cinnamon's journey to the USA was coordinated in large part by Feffer's sister, Christine Sullivan of Cambridge, Vt.
The dogs "provide our troops with a connection to home. … They give unconditional love and support," says Sullivan, 46, who has two dogs she adopted from U.S. shelters.
Feffer, a 43-year-old information-technology salesman, says he first saw Cinnamon shortly after his arrival in January 2006 at a U.S. base in Afghanistan.
Photo: Sgt. Bankey poses in Iraq with Socks, a dog he adopted through Operation Baghdad Pups. (Operation Baghdad Pups)
"I was walking to a meeting and out from underneath one of the buildings this little puppy comes running," Feffer recalls. "I'm looking around going, 'Where'd this dog come from? Who's taking care of her?' "
When his deployment ended that June, Feffer, aware of the regulations prohibiting him from bringing the dog home himself, asked a private government contractor to help, Sullivan says.
The contractor transported Cinnamon from Afghanistan to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, but couldn't get the dog onto a civilian flight to the USA. So he abandoned her at the airport, Sullivan says. Feffer and Sullivan thought the puppy was lost forever.
"I cried so hard," Sullivan says. "I was heartbroken."
Sullivan contacted the SPCA's Crisp, whom she had met the previous fall while working along the Gulf Coast to rescue animals displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Crisp linked Sullivan with a representative of the World Society for the Protection of Animals who happened to live in Bishkek, and she unraveled the mystery.
An airline employee had given the dog to a local family. Some cross-cultural negotiations, coupled with the efforts of Mike Blake, a sympathetic chief master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force Reserve stationed at a nearby airbase, resulted in the successful completion of Cinnamon's six-week voyage to Feffer's Maryland home.
"It's such a strange mixture of elation and disbelief," Feffer says. "Occasionally I'll go in and look at her and say, 'You're here. I can't believe it.' "
At first Crisp thought Cinnamon would be a one-time deal. But the SPCA heard frequent stories about other military members who wanted to bring home dogs. Last September a sergeant called to ask for assistance in saving Charlie, a stray his unit had befriended.
The SPCA founded Operation Baghdad Pups two months later to facilitate Charlie's trip. The canine arrived in the USA on Valentine's Day and is scheduled to travel to Fort Bragg, N.C., this week, according to SPCA spokeswoman Stephanie Scroggs.
Cinnamon's perilous journey provided lessons that have made the trips smoother for other dogs.
"We're the poster child for the importance of having such a resource," Feffer says.
'PLENTY OF EXCEPTIONS'
The Pentagon referred an inquiry about the program to Spc. Charles Espie, a U.S. Central Command spokesman in Baghdad. Espie cited an order banning troops from "adopting as pets or mascots, caring for or feeding any type of animal."
"Technically speaking," Espie wrote in an e-mail, "it is against policy. And yes, there have been plenty of exceptions to that rule."
Baghdad Pups has brought to America five more Iraqi canines since Charlie's homecoming: K-Pot and Liberty in February, and Bags, Oreo and Socks in mid-March. The dogs are vaccinated, and then Crisp accompanies them out of the country. The group spends $4,000 to $6,000 on each rescue. It raises money through donations and a partnership with www.ilovedogs.com, Scroggs says.
Sullivan, who chronicled Cinnamon's adventure in a self-published book, 44 Days Out of Kandahar: The Amazing Journey of a Missing Military Puppy and the Desperate Search to Find Her, is donating her profits to the cause.
"The last thing we need to do is ask our soldiers to sacrifice a friend that helped them get through," Scroggs says. "Our soldiers have sacrificed enough."
Silverman reports for The Burlington (Vt.) Free Press