Group reunites war-zone dogs with U.S. troops

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PHILADELPHIA — When the Army 307th Military Police Company pulled up to a police station in the Shinwar district of Afghanistan in October 2011, a little white-and-brown spotted dog appeared.

The soldiers, especially Sgt. T.J. Homan, began caring for the stray. The soldiers named her "Lil B," short for Little Beethoven because she looked like a Saint Bernard. Lil B eventually bonded with the 27-year-old Homan. The pup slept in his cot, snuggling with Homan and sometimes stealing a boot during the night.

"Whatever she did, she was real rehabilitating," Homan said. "She reminded us that there's other stuff out there other than the war."

When the time came for the squad to return to Fort Dix in New Jersey, Homan told his sister he wanted to bring Lil B with him. His sister stumbled upon the Philadelphia-based nonprofit No Dog Gets Left Behind, which eventually brought the pup home.

Since its founding in 2010, No Dog Gets Left Behind has raised more than $70,000 and has brought at least 15 dogs from Afghanistan and Iraq to the United States.

The family-run charity, led by Trish Gohl, 52, raises money for transportation and makes arrangements for quarantines, medication and airfare, and for local people to drive the dog to a transit facility. It costs about $4,500 to bring over a dog from a combat zone, she said.

Gohl, a consultant and project manager who lives in Philadelphia with her husband and dog, got the idea in 2009. That year, after her dog died and her nephew was deployed to Afghanistan, she watched the Military Channel documentary "No Dog Left Behind" and a mission was born.

Upon Homan's return to Fort Dix on Jan. 27, 2012, Lil B, who had arrived a few months earlier, was there to meet him.

"I was in my uniform still, she smelled me, and she just fell right at my knees, pushed her whole body against me," he said.

Adjusting to life at home has been difficult for the former soldier, who now lives in Stratford, N.J., and works as a corrections officer at Fort Dix. He doesn't like to talk about the things that trouble him. When they do, he turns to Lil B.

On one particularly bad night, Lil B stayed by his side for 19 hours straight, he said. She didn't bark, she didn't yelp, she didn't need to relieve herself.

Every day, Lil B greets him with a wagging tail when he gets home from work. And when he's feeling down, she throws a toy in his lap.

"She really does know if there's something wrong," he said.

The two still sleep together every night, with Lil B on guard duty at the foot of the bed. "B has to sleep with me," he said, "otherwise she cries."

Lil B is doing some adjusting herself. Loud noises and confined spaces scare her, as does going down steps.

A few months ago, Homan adopted Lucy, a black schnauzer-poodle mix, to keep Lil B company. It's helping.

James Serpell, director of the Center for the Interactions of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, said people's relationships with their pets help regulate stress levels.

"People under distress seek out attachments and bonds with others," he said. "There's safety in numbers. A dog is definitely an object of attachment in that situation."

It's important to take the dog's welfare into consideration, Serpell said, as the trip and relocation can be a traumatic experience.

Not long after a suicide bomber targeted Army Sgt. Mark Wildsmith's camp in the Paktika province in Afghanistan last year, he and his mates in the First Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment relocated to Ghazni province. There, they were greeted by a tall, skinny, light-brown dog soon dubbed "Kimo."

Kimo went out on missions with the squad and stood guard at night.

"She's really protective of us. Any time any Afghans came up to our camp, she just stood there and watched them," said Wildsmith, 23, who hails from northeast Philadelphia.

Wildsmith looked online and contacted the Puppy Rescue Mission, a Texas-based group with a similar mission, who told him about No Dog Gets Left Behind. Wildsmith and Kimo were reunited stateside Jan. 31, and they reside in Fort Knox, Ky.

"It's good to know she's still here protecting us, and now I got a chance to help her out, too," Wildsmith said.

In August, the Defense Department gave No Dog Gets Left Behind the Seven Seals award, an honor given to individuals and organizations that demonstrate support for service members.