- Associated Press - Saturday, August 15, 2015

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - The fragile line between life and death in Afghanistan for U.S. Army Sgt. Mark Wildsmith and his team was paper thin.

Assault-rifle battles with Taliban militants. Hand-propelled grenades tossed from behind. Suicide bombers in explosive-laden trucks.

Every hour was as chancy as a game of Russian roulette.

But at the end of every long, anxiety-fueled day, they returned to the base in Waghez to find their gentle, golden-colored stray dog, Kimo, bounding toward them, tail wagging.

In chaos, Kimo was home.

“We’d be coming back from an extra-hard mission and she’d be there to greet us,” said Wildsmith, of Rhawnhurst, who was a team leader in the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division.

“As hard as it was over there, she was always with us no matter what,” said Wildsmith, a lifelong dog lover.

She was at war, just like them.

In a way, Kimo saved them, providing a sense of normalcy when little else seemed normal.

So in late 2013, Wildsmith set out to save her.

At first, he didn’t know how. But a growing number of soldiers are finding a way. They do not want to abandon their stray dogs of war.

A Philadelphia nonprofit group, No Dog Gets Left Behind, headed by Trish Gohl of Lexington Park in the Northeast, is reuniting them all over the country.

So, on a recent steamy afternoon, Wildsmith, 24, sat outside his house with a svelte 50-pound Kimo laying over his feet, panting, her eyes half closed and her mouth upturned in a dog smile. She looked up at him adoringly, then chased empty water bottles that he threw for her, a game they played in Afghanistan.

“We had no toys for her, so we used water bottles,” he said.

The American flag that Wildsmith wore on his uniform was stuck to the Velcro on one side of Kimo’s harness. On the other side was the big “1” for Wildsmith’s infantry.

“She was there for it all, the IEDS, firefights and explosions,” Wildsmith said. “Everyone loved her to death. Guys have a hard time with their feelings over there and she was always there.

“It’s hard to explain how much she meant to us.”

HE BIT BAD GUYS

Thousands of stray dogs roam Afghanistan, soldiers say.

“There is a street dog on every corner,” said Pen Farthing, a former Royal Marine sergeant who lives in Exeter, England, and founded the nonprofit Nowzad, which has helped reunite some 800 dogs with soldiers all over the world.

“There has been no animal-control program in place for over 30 years,” he said in an email.

Farthing launched his dog rescue mission in 2006. He was in the town of Now Zad in the Helmand Province when he broke up a dog fight organized by the Afghan Police. One of the dogs had no ears and a severed tail.

Farthing and the maimed dog adopted each other.

“I called him Nowzad and he became my five minutes of time-out from the daily stress of living and fighting…a long way from home,” Farthing wrote to a Daily News reporter.

“I couldn’t bear to leave him behind and hatched a cunning plan to rescue him back to England,” he said.

Farthing later established a dog shelter and clinic in Kabul staffed by 14 Afghan nationals, four of whom are trained veterinarians.

Back in Philadelphia, Trish Gohl was drawn to help rescue stray dogs of war in 2010. A year before, her nephew, Chris Shields, had returned from Afghanistan where he’d served with the Navy alongside his trained military dog, a Belgian Malinois named Branco.

“Branco worked detection and patrol. Basically he looked for IEDs and bit bad guys,” the 27-year-old Shields told the Daily News.

“There you are in a gun fight and the dog is beside you willing to take a bullet for you,” he said. “He made you feel like a proud father.”

Shields, of Somerton, adopted Branco who, at nearly 12 years old, is retired. Shields pays out of pocket at least $200 a month to take care of the dog’s arthritis.

“We went through so much together. I’d do anything for him,” he said.

Around the time that Shields came home, Gohl and her husband, Vince, lost their beloved dog Ralphie to cancer five years after he showed up as a stray, shaking in their front yard.

One night, Gohl stumbled on a military channel documentary called “No Dog Left Behind.” She teared up learning of three stray dogs who helped save soldiers’ lives.

A suicide bomber sneaked onto a base in Pakita Province in February 2009 and headed to the barracks with 50 soldiers inside. The dogs - Rufus, Sasha and Target - snarled and snapped at him. Target and Rufus latched onto him. The bomber couldn’t get inside. He backed away and set his bomb off outside. Five soldiers were injured.

The others searched the rubble for the dogs. Rufus and Target were severely wounded, but survived. Sasha was killed.

Rufus and Target were later brought to the United States to live with two of the soldiers.

“I just knew I wanted to get involved,” Gohl said.

She has raised money to reunite 25 dogs with their soldiers all over the country, so far. One rescue is in Lancaster; another in the Poconos.

Each rescue costs between $3,500 and $4,500. Gohl works with three groups, including Nowzad and Puppy Rescue Mission, to arrange the logistics.

“It’s been so rewarding,” she said, petting her domestic rescue dog, Bella. “It’s a way for me to try to give back and let the soldiers know we appreciate what they did.”

GETTING HOME NOT EASY

Wildsmith was on his second tour in Afghanistan in June 2013, this time at a combat outpost in the Sar Howza district. There, wild dogs ran in packs and most were unfriendly scavengers.

“A lot of them had diseases and you didn’t want to go near them,” he said.

After a suicide attack in September 2013, in which he and other soldiers were injured, Wildsmith and his team were moved to the base in Waghez where another squad had cared for Kimo.

“The guys there told us to make sure no one messes with her. Some Afghan people throw rocks at (dogs) and beat them with sticks,” he said.

“She was pretty much domesticated. She’d had a broken leg, probably from some kind of abuse, so they took care of her,” he said, adding that his good friend Staff Sgt. Joshua Luckey would joke that Wildsmith “stole” Kimo from him.

An interpreter on the base had named her Kimo, spelling it Chemo. Wildsmith was told it means loyal companion. Then again, she could have been named “Chemo” for her healing powers, he said. Whatever the origin, Kimo knew her name, so it stuck. Wildsmith just changed the spelling.

He and the other soldiers fed her scraps that she gobbled down so fast she could barely breathe.

“She loved hot dogs. We gave her whatever we had…But she refused to eat Spam,” he said with a chuckle.

At night, Kimo stayed outside, patrolling the base. She barked at anything that moved. She helped the soldiers sleep at ease.

She was terrified to go inside any building anyway.

“We tried to bring her in the tent in winter time and she wouldn’t do it. We’d even pick her up and put her in there, but she found a way out.”

So she slept in a concrete bunker. “We put a blanket and a water bowl in there for her. We felt bad. It was freezing cold and she refused to come inside.”

It was the dead of winter when Wildsmith decided he had to get Kimo back to Philadelphia. He went online and found the Texas-based Puppy Rescue Mission website. That group in turn contacted No Dog Gets Left Behind to help with fundraising.

A couple of nights later, Wildsmith had a four-hour stint standing guard. When he was done, Gohl and the group had already raised $3,000, he said.

“I knew then I was taking her home,” he said.

But getting Kimo home was not easy. The interpreter on the base found a driver willing to take Kimo to a shelter in Kabul for $500 and a watch, said Michelle Smith, executive director of Puppy Rescue Mission, which has saved some 1,200 dogs from war zones.

“The drivers risk their lives,” she said. “If you’re stopped driving a dog for a Westerner, you can get beat up or worse.”

One driver was injured by an IED, she said.

At the shelter, Kimo got her shots and had to stay for the standard 30-day quarantine. She then was flown to Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., where two volunteers picked her up on Dec. 5, 2013.

Total cost: $4,500, which was raised by Gohl. The Puppy Rescue Mission arranged for all the travel.

“It’s a way of paying back the soldiers who sacrifice so much to protect our freedom,” Smith said.

Because Wildsmith was still in Afghanistan, Kimo needed a foster family.

Enter Debra and Dan Hamilton of Bensalem. Dan Hamilton worked with Wildsmith’s mom, Susan, and Wildsmith’s wife, Kristina, at Fox Chase Cancer Center.

“I had worked as a dog handler in Vietnam,” Dan Hamilton said. “We just started talking about dogs and Susan told me about Kimo. I volunteered to take her.”

“She was so shy at first,” he said. But she soon settled in and got used to their four other dogs.

On Jan. 31, 2014, Wildsmith, returned to Fort Knox, Kentucky, where Kristina was waiting. His parents drove Kimo for the big reunification. Wildsmith was in full uniform. Kimo recognized her war buddy immediately.

Back home, Kimo’s healed broken leg is hardly noticeable.

She happily goes inside now, but is still somewhat skittish. She barks at cars, loud noises, even the garage door.

Officially, Kimo is not a working “war dog.” She wasn’t trained as one. But she was born and raised in a “hostile environment” and went through war.

For that, to Wildsmith and the other soldiers, Kimo earned the title.

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1IGWFbV

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Information from: The Philadelphia Daily News, http://www.philly.com

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