Marine Corps veteran Craig Grossi with Fred, the stray dog he brought home from Afghanistan.

Marine Corps veteran Craig Grossi with Fred, the stray dog he brought home from Afghanistan. (André Chung for The Washington Post)

When Marine Corps veteran Craig Grossi gets out of his 2017 Toyota Tacoma truck after a long drive, his first instinct still is to open the back door and let Fred out. The stray dog that he met in a combat zone in Afghanistan and managed to sneak back to Virginia had been by his side since Grossi returned from that war in 2011.

They had done everything together. While living in D.C., the two were inseparable. At bars, parties, classes, libraries, restaurants, you never saw one without the other. Later, the pair would drive in the truck to 49 states, and “if you could drive to Hawaii, we would have gone there, too,” Grossi said.

But Fred no longer jumps out of the back door when Grossi opens it. The dog he credits with saving his life, restoring his soul after he returned from combat and introducing him to his wife and countless friends, died of cancer Nov. 22 at Grossi’s home in Maine.

“On the one hand, he lived 14 years, and we did incredible things together,” Grossi, 40, said in an interview Friday. “At the same time, I really do feel like we got robbed. He was so healthy, his eyesight, his bloodwork, everything. But that’s just what cancer does. It just comes and rocks you.”

Grossi has always insisted that even though he brought Fred out of a war zone, it was the dog that saved him. His dog, he said, taught him to lean into problems, not run away from them.

That was what motivated him to write “Craig & Fred: A Marine, A Stray Dog, and How They Rescued Each Other,” a 2017 book that drew national attention, gained the pair a social media following and helped Grossi, who suffered a traumatic brain injury from an explosion in Afghanistan, spread the word about PTSD to assist veterans like him who were readjusting to life after the military.

“I didn’t want to admit that I had been affected or changed by Afghanistan,” Grossi told The Washington Post in 2017.

“But deep down I was really frustrated and really angry, and my brain had been rattled. And to go from combat operations to boardrooms and spreadsheets was really a kick in the gut. So coming home to Fred was what kept me going.”

In 2021, Grossi released “Second Chances,” a book about his experiences taking Fred to a state prison in Maine where he started a writing workshop with prisoners who had read his first book as part of their book club.

“I had a bad attitude about it at first, but I thought ‘Fred will be this ball of light for them, and then we can leave,’” Grossi remembered. Instead, after the first meeting with the prisoners, Grossi remembers sitting in his car in the prison parking lot with Fred and crying.

“I was blown away by how wrong I was about that place and how hard those guys were working to improve themselves,” he said. Grossi and Fred also teamed up to raise money for military families that had lost loved ones.

Beginning in 2014, Grossi hosted an annual fundraiser at one of his favorite bars, the Pug on H Street NE, where he honored the memory of two of his comrades who died in Afghanistan. They donated the money to TAPS, a national nonprofit organization that provides care and resources for people grieving the deaths of loved ones who served in the military.

The fundraiser has grown and now includes Grossi’s playing drums with a cover band, 50 Year Storm. This year’s event was to be held Saturday at Pearl Street Warehouse at the Wharf.

Although the loss of his companion has been devastating, Grossi said he is still learning from his dog.

“The biggest lesson Fred taught me over the years is not to take time for granted, and that’s really been hammered home,” Grossi said. “It’s challenging, but I owe it to Fred to really meet that challenge and live the life that he would be so excited about. He wouldn’t want me to stop doing all the things I did with him.”

For now, Grossi keeps Fred’s remains in a beautiful handmade wood box at home. He has thought about taking him on one more trip. Fred may make it to Hawaii after all.

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