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When a group of Afghan men were seen firing at the ground in a remote mountain region eight months ago, alarmed members of a U.S. elite special forces unit came upon a disturbing discovery: A female dog, shot dead, after giving birth to a litter of pups no more than a week old. As the men proceeded to shoot the puppies one by one, U.S. forces swiftly intervened, rescuing two surviving puppies and taking them to a base camp where they would be raised as comrades.
The dogs, Rommel and Blitz, were flown to the U.S. this week in an effort to reunite them with the elite special forces sergeant who saved them. The reunion is part of a broader initiative, led by the group "Guardians of Rescue," to return the canines of war to the American troops who bonded with them during their time in Afghanistan.
"When we got there, we saw a few Afghanis standing around something and firing at the ground," recalled the sergeant, who now lives in Raleigh, N.C., and whose name cannot be revealed for security reasons.
"We could see an adult dog and figured that they were shooting the dog over and over again. When we got closer, we saw that the situation wasn't what we expected. 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," he said.
Guardians of Rescue, a national volunteer organization whose mission is to protect the well being of animals, began its operation to reunite dogs in Afghanistan with American troops in 2010. With the help of the Kabul-based animal rescue group, Nowzad, more than 20 canines have so far been brought back from the country and returned to U.S. troops -- most recently a Navy SEAL team, according to Robert Misseri, founder and president of the animal rescue group. Their work has been made possible solely though money donated to the organization.
"This is part of our No Buddy Left Behind Program," said Misseri. "Raising that kind of money isn't easy, but helping our heroes and their four-legged battle buddies is the least we can do. After all, they sacrifice their lives for our freedom on a daily basis."
"It's miraculous that these dogs lived," he said of Rommel and Blitz, who arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City on Monday. The dogs will be transported to North Carolina on July 23 to reunite with the unnamed sergeant.
"One of the soldiers whose dog we brought back said it's the dog that keeps him alive," he said. "He's become his therapy dog. The soldier doesn't leave the house without him. They experienced together the sound of gunfire, the smell of gun powder ... It really is a bond that cannot be broken."
"Dog abuse in Afghanistan is beyond horrific," added Misseri. "They're not looked at as pets and the minute these insurgents know the dog was fed or cared for at a U.S. camp they will torture and slaughter it."
The U.S. military announced in February that the Taliban had captured a dog belonging to British forces in the region. The Taliban posted a video of the dog on its Twitter account, claiming the the "mujahideen seized US dog" was taken during an "attempted nighttime raid" by U.S. forces in late December in the eastern province of Laghman, east of the capital, Kabul. The dog, a Belgian Malinois named Colonel, was seen wearing a high-tech harness and surrounded by heavily-armed Taliban fighters holding captured rifles.
Nearly seven months after Colonel's capture, it is not known whether the animal is still alive.
Misseri said his New York-based group hopes to continue its mission to reunite war dogs with their American comrades but noted, "money is always a factor because we are an all-volunteer organization."
"The troops will tell you they sleep totally different when they have these dogs around them," Misseri said. "Unless you experience it, it's hard to explain this kind of bond -- especially when you're in the most dangerous part of the world."
"Some of the most advanced technology we have cannot compare to the sensory capabilities of a dog," he said.