MILITARY

Special ops veteran risks life to recover pets from bases in war zone

A special operations soldier is seen holding "Ghost," a 1-year-old Canaan dog he brought to the U.S. in November from an American military base in the Middle East.

A special operations soldier is seen holding "Ghost," a 1-year-old Canaan dog he brought to the U.S. in November from an American military base in the Middle East.

The recovery operation was costly and dangerous, requiring the special operations soldier to enter hostile territory in full body armor and make his way to a U.S. military base.

The purpose of his mission, however, did not include bringing back an American soldier. It was to pick up a 45-pound white Canaan dog named "Ghost" and reunite him with his human companion back home.

It's the kind of mission this soldier, who declined to give his name for security reasons, says he conducts in war zones around the world.

"It's the best feeling to reunite these pets with their soldiers," he told Fox News. "I was wounded in Iraq, myself, and I owe my life to my dog. There is a bond there that could never be broken."

For American soldiers serving abroad, pets are not considered military property – and are often left to die in the war zones where they bonded with their handlers. But this special operations soldier, with the help of a New York animal rescue group, has made it his mission to fly into countries in the Middle East and bring the pets back to the U.S. to live with their companions and their families. 

"There’s a risk of kidnapping – there’s a risk of everything over there. You don’t know who’s your friend and who isn’t," said the soldier, a 14-year special operations veteran who to date has carried out 20 missions, returning dozens of pets.

"I had a gun held to my head while I was trying to get a dog," he said.

Each operation costs between $3,000 and $4,000, and is funded entirely by Guardians of Rescue, a group based in Smithtown, N.Y., that has been providing financial assistance for such missions since 2012 in places like Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.

"The animals are not classified as military property, therefore they’re not authorized on the packing list," the soldier said. "You take home with you what you bring."

Past rescues include an orange, fluffy cat named, "Majnoon" and a dark-colored puppy found near death in a desert after his mother had been shot and killed.

The soldier explained what he called a "very flawed policy" in the Middle East called "vector control," in which local contractors at the bases within the region trap and exterminate the animals, including packs of ferral dogs.

Such was the case for Ghost, who, along with his entire litter, was poisoned as part of the vector control program. The 1-year-old dog miraculously survived, according to the veteran, who brought him stateside in November to live with his soldier's family in the Northeast.  

"I think he realizes he’s lucky," he said of Ghost, whom he described as the quintessential puppy who loves to play. 

"He has an undying love for his soldier," he said.

There are many logistical challenges involved in animal rescue missions, said Robert Misseri, who runs Guardians of Rescue, the subject of a weekly show on "Animal Planet." Pets must receive medical clearance before they can leave the country for the U.S. The goal for each mission is to bring home four animals at a time -- an operation Misseri said is funded through many small donations.

Every time a pet is reunited with its soldier, "it helps both ends of the leash," he said.

"When you know you can help an animal stay alive and also prevent a service member from experiencing guilt for having left a pet behind -- it's very rewarding," Misseri said. 

Cristina Corbin is a Fox News reporter based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @CristinaCorbin.