Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Furry Warrior: From Baghdad, With Love by Jay Kopelman

In an abandoned house in the northeast section of Fallujah, members of the First Battalion, Third Marines--known as the Lava Dogs--froze when they heard a series of clicks coming from the one remaining room of the compound.

Grenade pins?


Maybe timed explosives....

They should have prepped the room first with a grenade--tossed it in and just let it do all the dirty work. Instead, for reasons still obscured by war and fear and things just destined to be, they backed up to the wall on either side of the doorway and positioned their weapons to fire.

"Holy shit!"

The puppy turned at the sound of their voices and stared at them....He cocked his head, trying to interpret their intent rather than their words.

"You gotta be kidding."

Then he yipped, wagged his tail, and clicked his toenails on the floor as he pranced up and down in place, happy it seemed someone had found him at last.

Nothing could be more out of place in a zone of brutal urban warfare than a helpless five-week old puppy, starved, lost, and yet still trusting and hopeful when these filthy, whacked out jarheads have him in their sights. Yet when Lt. Colonel Jay Kopelman encounters this little survivor, something clicks between them.

"There's fear in his eyes, despite the bravado. He's only a puppy, too young to know how to mask it, so I can see how bravery and terror trap him on all sides while testosterone and adrenaline compete in the meantime for every ounce of his attention. Recognize it right away."

Marine Corps General Order 1-A forbids any behavior which would be prejudicial to order, which means that combat troops are forbidden to acquire pets--which means that military discipline encourages soldiers to "euthanize" dogs which attach themselves to soldiers and potentially interfere with armed action. But nobody among the Lava Dogs who discover the puppy will follow through on those orders.

"Not me, man. No way."

"Not worth the ammunition."

"I ain't some kind of sicko, man."

In other words, they had enough pictures already from Fallujah to torture them slowly for the rest of their lives; they didn't need any more. Warriors, yes--puppy killers, no.

So Lava, as the Marines name him, is adopted, nourished on MRE's, defleaed with kerosene, wormed with tobacco, and becomes dependent upon the kindness of strangers--in the end, hundreds of them, to stay alive and finally to escape from the chaos and death into what must seem dog heaven today.

Kopelman and his mates keep the puppy hidden and he thrives, growing so fast and bonding to the warriors around him so thoroughly that their biggest problem in concealment is quieting his courageous "roo, roo, roooo!" when he thinks some danger to them is approaching. Soldiers build him a hidden kennel and take turns caring for him as he grows, but Kopelman alone takes the responsibility for finding a way to make sure that he will have a future, perhaps even a future as a regular family pet back in California.

Keeping Lava below the military radar and keeping him safe from the cycle of death going on around him is difficult. As Kopelman searches for some way to save Lava from a military execution or life on the streets, possibly surviving on dead human flesh left by the wayside, Lava is housed by different troopers and eventually by the staff and reporters of National Public Radio, who are living in Baghdad's dangerous Red Zone to be closer to their Iraqi sources. First Anne Garrels, then Anthony Kuhne, and finally Lourdes Garcia-Navarro take him, despite the demands of their difficult jobs, under their wings. At one point, when Anne is temporarily assigned to Cairo, Lava is handed over to "Sam," an Iraqi fixer, to watch over. Now, most Iraqis are said to hate dogs: their religion deems them "unclean," but "Sam," too, falls under Lava's spell, and soon he is scouring the Baghdad black market for dog food and puppy toys and marveling at Lava's ability to sit beautifully on command.

On Anne Garrels' return to Baghdad, she even agrees to drive him to the Jordanian border to hand him over to an accomplice with arrangements to get him on a plane to America. As Kopelman tells it,

"And here Annie is, transporting a large puppy who can't keep still and whose face, popping up from one window to another..., announces to every person standing in the streets that an American and her dirty American dog are in the car."

When that plan fails and Lava is turned back at the Jordanian border, Kopelman almost loses hope. Soon to be transferred out of Iraq, he frantically emails every possible source of rescue for Lava. Serendipitously, he finally links up with people from the Vohne Liche Kennels who train and transport war dogs in and out of Iraq and who offer to fly Lava out of the Baghdad airport--if he can get official health papers and if the NPR crew can somehow get him through the checkpoint into the Green Zone to meet with the kennel's representative.

By this time Kopelman is back at Camp Pendleton, connected only by his bond to Lava and the many emails flying back and forth between the U.S. and Iraq. But Lava's story is now making him famous, and with the help of "Sam," who gets the official papers, his media friends at NPR and ABC, and Ken Licklider from Vohne Liche Kennels, Lava, with the cover identity as a "working bomb dog," is successfully smuggled from the Red Zone into the Green Zone and by armored vehicle into Baghdad International and is at last on his way to O'Hare Airport in Chicago and eventually to become Jay's family pet in a quiet San Diego neighborhood.

Trying to justify the effort put forth to save one puppy, he writes

"...which brings me to the last part of my confession. I want Lava to stay alive. No matter how bad things get, it's still better to be alive. I want him to be alive because then there's still hope...."

From Baghdad, With Love: A Marine, the War, and a Dog Named Lava is a brutally honest yet emotional story, a dog story AND a war story which juxtaposes mercy and death in the way only an eye witness can do. Although Kopelman's own story is one for mature young adults and adults, this gripping true story is one that cries out for a version for young readers as well.

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  • I agree. It is a wonderful book. I'd love to see a children's version.

    BTW, there have been more heartwarming stories of soldiers and their dogs in Iraq. Not in book form, but on milblogs. One especially touching about a fallen soldier and his mom. You can search the archives at

    By Blogger Maggie45, at 10:15 PM  

  • That is incredible! I know why the military has their rules about pets but I love how so many military members are able to break that particular rule and rescue doggies. It's not the dog's fault that they were born in Iraq!

    By Blogger CastoCreations, at 11:13 PM  

  • We'll blow a guy in half, then offer him a cigarette. We'll gun down kids without blinking, then risk four lives to rescue a dog. We show heartless cruelty and heartrending compassion in the same breath. The most terrible thing about us is that we convince ourselves of sanity.

    By Blogger halojones-fan, at 12:46 AM  

  • I don't know how many Marines you know, halojones-fan, but I don't know any Marines that gun down kids (let alone would do it without blinking an eye). The Marines I know would expose themselves to heavy fire to protect a child.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:41 AM  

  • Halojones-I assume you are speaking for yourself. I don't know anyone who has behaved in that fashion.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:13 AM  

  • Jay Kopelman will be my guest on News Talk Online on this Thursday July 3 at 5 PM New York time.

    You can listen or talk to him by going to my blog, and clicking on the link to the show. There's no charge. Thanks.

    By Blogger Gary Baumgarten, at 7:30 AM  

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