FUQUAY-VARINA — After surgery and a tiring drive from New York City to Fuquay-Varina, a mutt from Afghanistan named Rommel snuggled on the sofa with his long-lost savior this week.
That savior – a Fort Bragg U.S. Army Elite Special Forces sergeant – rescued Rommel and his brother, Blitz, in Afghanistan. He had not seen the dogs for four months.
Rommel and Blitz, now about 8 months old, trotted around a suburban Fuquay-Varina backyard Wednesday sporting patriotic bandanas and experiencing green grass for the first time. Thin and rowdy, the dogs nuzzled up to any new person and growled playfully at each other.
The Special Forces unit intervened in Afghanistan last winter when they saw some Afghan men shooting at something on the ground.
“The corpse of a dog on the ground had a litter of puppies no more than a week old, and they weren’t just shooting the mother but also shooting the pups,” said the sergeant, who cannot be named for security reasons.
The unit brought the two surviving puppies – Blitz, a light brindle, and Rommel, a brown, black and white thick-haired pup – to their base in Afghanistan. The soldiers raised the brothers on the base.
Separating from the dogs when the unit returned to Bragg this spring was difficult, so members sought help from Rachael’s Rescue, a Cary animal rescue group.
Overwhelmed by logistics and cost, founder Rachael Polmanteer got aid from the national organization Guardians of Rescue.
Afghanistan to America
Robert Misseri founded New York-based Guardians of Rescue in 2010 after realizing how veterans felt disheartened or guilty after leaving canine companions behind in another country.
“Having shared that year or two with a dog that slept by their feet and went out on mission with them, it was very disheartening to leave a dog behind that was now westernized,” Misseri said, adding that Afghan mutts are some of the most brilliant dogs he has seen.
Often, insurgents will kill or torture strays that had been connected with U.S. service members, Misseri said.
Dogs are not treated as pets in Afghanistan, and keeping strays on base is not widely accepted by officers.
The two largest programs in Guardians of Rescue are No Buddy Left Behind, which reunites strays with their Army companions back in the states, and Paws of War, which rescues and custom trains service dogs for veterans.
Eighteen Paws of War dogs have learned to assist veterans who suffer from PTSD and other issues by waking them from night tremors or taking them out of crowded areas during an anxiety episode.
John Walis, a retired U.S. Army corporal and Guardians of Rescue project coordinator, relates personally.
During his time in Afghanistan in 2008, he befriended a pack of three stray dogs, feeding them every day and slowly bringing them onto the base.
To replace the hole in his heart left from abandoning the three, he later adopted a mutt from Afghanistan named Tommy through Guardians of Rescue. He realized how much the dog helped him recover from injuries and PTSD.
Misseri said that the organization has reunited a total of 30 dogs with their soldiers.
It takes an Army
While Walis worked earlier this year to retrieve Rommel and Blitz across oceans, Polmanteer received a phone call.
The unit told her that Rommel had been hit by a military vehicle. He had suffered a broken femur joint.
A Kabul shelter that also reconnects animals with soldiers flew a veterinarian in from the United Kingdom to perform surgery on Rommel. It was the first of its kind in Afghanistan.
Guardians of Rescue then worked with the shelter to transport the dogs.
Together with an 8-year-old South Dakota boy who raised funds because of his connections to the unit, Polmanteer and Guardians of Rescue collected the $10,000 needed to “bring the boys home.”
The canine brothers arrived Monday in New York City from Kabul, then drove down to North Carolina with Walis.
Rommel will start physical therapy soon, staying at Polmanteer’s home until his soldier companion can raise money to fence his large backyard.
“You can’t help but get attached. These dogs play such a role when we are over there as far as morale and a sense of being home,” Walis said. “We’re both veterans, we’ve lived through the scars of war.”