NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Two stray dogs in Afghanistan that found comfort and companionship with a company of U.S. Army soldiers at a remote firebase are poised to leave the war zone behind. As the troops get set to return home, their spouses have raised nearly $6,000 to fly the dogs to the United States.
A Facebook posting has spread the word and donations are flowing in to pay the costs of transporting the dogs — Smiley and OP1 — the thousands of miles from Afghanistan. Their destination: Fort Campbell, the big military base on the Kentucky-Tennessee line and a new, peaceful life with the families of some of the soldiers.
The 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, was one of the units dispatched to Afghanistan last year to secure that country from a resurgent Taliban. They are expected to begin leaving the country later this summer.
Sonya Luedeman, wife of Spc. Jason Luedeman — a medic in Charlie Company, 1-61 Cavalry — said her husband couldn't stop talking about a black-and-white dog that had followed the soldiers back to their firebase during a patrol months ago.
The soldiers called him OP1, after the outpost where they found him.
"The dog just made everyone happier," Luedeman said. "He really was like a cohesive part of the unit. He would tell me that every time OP would see the guys gear up for a patrol he would run outside to make sure they didn't leave him behind."
Dogs generally have a hard life in war-torn Afghanistan, where they are not typically considered pets and often scavenge for food around military bases. Someone had cut off OP1's ears and it was difficult to determine how old he was because he was malnourished when the soldiers found him.
Sgt. Mark Webber, an infantryman with Charlie Company, soon became attached to the friendly dog that would chase off other strays and join them on missions lasting days. Webber snapped pictures of OP1 napping with soldiers or serving as a scout during risky foot patrols through the Afghan countryside.
"OP1 has always been there with us," Webber said in an email from Afghanistan. "Whenever somebody is feeling down, they could play with him and he always had a way to cheer them up."
It has been a stint in Afghanistan fraught with danger.
The 1st squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment lost 10 soldiers during its yearlong deployment. Charlie Company's 4th Brigade Combat Team was one of the units selected to serve as a surge unit in Afghanistan — the company assigned to provide security to the Sherzad district of Nangarhar province, eastern Afghanistan.
There OP1 became "friends" with Smiley, a female dog hanging around the base, said Webber. Amanda Webber, Mark's wife, said Smiley got her name because soldiers say the tan-colored dog looks like she's grinning.
"She kind of looks like she is going to bite you, but she's not," Amanda Webber said. "She gets on the floor and lays on her back 'cause she wants you to rub her belly."
But the soldiers started to worry what would happen to their canine companions, both of them mixed breeds, once their deployment ended.
Luedeman found an animal rescue organization in Kabul that helped other soldiers bring home Afghan dogs. But the cost for transporting just one dog to the U.S. was $4,000.
Seeking support, Luedeman posted pictures of OP1 on a Facebook page and appealed for donations. "I never expected that we would have the money in less than a week," Luedeman said.
OP1 has been transported to Kabul to await a flight in coming weeks. Luedeman said the dog will fly first to Pakistan to be checked by a veterinarian and then flies on to New York and finally to Nashville.
Webber said the soldiers recently learned that Smiley is pregnant, which complicates plans to transport her. They are still trying to raise about $2,000 — the remaining expense for Smiley's flight.
The families of soldiers living off post are expected to take them in.
Meanwhile the soldiers' wives are trying to figure out how to accommodate the dogs, which have never been on a leash and don't eat dog food. OP1 has been eating the soldiers' meals ready to eat, or MREs.
"It's not like dealing with a domesticated dog at all," Luedeman said.
But even with the adjustment issues, the wives know there will be no better welcome home for their husbands after a long year than to see their best canine friends.
"These dogs really help these soldiers stay sane," said Amanda Webber.
On the Web:
Smiley's Facebook Page: http://www.facebook.com/(hash)!/SmileytheComancheDog
OP1's Facebook Page: http://www.facebook.com/(hash)!/OP1ComancheDog
Kristin Hall can be reached at http://twitter.com/kmhall