- The Washington Times - Monday, April 28, 2008

It was a long journey from Iraq to Kuwait to Northern Virginia, but Kujo, Jasmine and Hope took it in stride. They arrived in the United States Thursday, a bit weary, but ready to be reunited with members of the U.S. military who had befriended them overseas.

Kujo, a mixed-breed dog, and cats Jasmine and Hope were the latest arrivals of Operation Baghdad Pups, a program organized by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) International. Operation Baghdad Pups assists in transporting to the United States dogs and cats adopted by soldiers serving overseas.

In many cases, the pets become not only camp mascots, but provide comfort and companionship while the soldiers are far from home, says SPCA spokeswoman Stephanie Scroggs.

Technically, military regulations bar soldiers from caring for animals found while on active duty overseas. However, humanity sometimes trumps rules when a soggy and homeless animal needs care.

“We started the program earlier this year when we heard from a soldier who had tried everything to bring the unit mascot, Charlie, home with him,” she says. “The military will not bring animals to the States.”

Charlie, who was once malnourished and flea-ridden, now lives near Fort Bragg, N.C., with that solider, Sgt. Edward Watson of the Army’s 82nd Airborne. The border collie arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport on Valentine’s Day.

“Leaving him behind was not something I was looking forward to,” Sgt. Watson says from North Carolina as Charlie barks at a neighbor cutting the grass. “This program is definitely an awesome thing.”

Logistically, however, it is not easy. Operation Baghdad Pups gets several applications a week and hopes to transport at least 45 more animals by July, says program manager Terri Crisp. So far, six animals, plus Thursday’s three new arrivals, have made the trip from the Middle East.

There is strict criteria: The animals must have a home to go to in the United States, and they need to have been adopted by soldiers who have taken care of them from a young age, Ms. Scroggs says.

“We do not hope to be animal control for the Middle East,” she says. “We are helping American soldiers by bringing home the animals they love.”

Once an application is accepted, Operation Baghdad Pups sends a private security firm to pick up the animal. To get Kujo, for instance, required a 24-hour trip by the guards to northern Iraq, complicated by bridges being out and other war-zone issues, Ms. Crisp says.

Operation Baghdad Pups also provides vaccinations, health care, grooming, a quarantine schedule and commercial air transportation. Total cost: about $4,000 per animal. Ms. Crisp flies quickly into Baghdad on Gryphon Airlines and accompanies the animals back to the states.

“We’re in Baghdad about 45 minutes, then we fly out to neighboring countries,” she says after arriving with the latest group of animals at Dulles.

Kujo’s journey began when Marines were on patrol in Iraq. They came upon two puppies — one of them fatally shot — in the street. The Marines took the surviving puppy, Kujo, back to camp and bathed, fed and house-trained him. Kujo will head to Tampa shortly to join the girlfriend of one of the Marines until the Marine, whose identity can’t be released due to security concerns, returns home.

Hope, a calico cat, was found by an American contractor when she jumped into a truck’s engine compartment. The cat was badly burned and was treated by a security medic liaison officer, says Bruce, the contractor who befriended her.

Bruce, whose last name can’t be released for security reasons, and Hope became very attached to each other as she provided social contact that is often missing in a place where you do nothing but work and sleep, Ms. Scroggs says.

After Hope became a camp mascot, Bruce wrote to Operation Baghdad Pups: “She has become domesticated over the last six months and lacks all the understanding of the wild survival techniques to take care of herself on her own. At this time it would be like me abandoning my own child.”

Hope met Bruce’s wife, Pam, at Dulles. She’s now off to their Northern Virginia home to meet their dog, Queenie. Bruce is scheduled to return home shortly.

“They are very much bonded,” Pam says of Bruce and Hope. “Being a contractor, he was in a place without many Americans. She was his only company.”

Jasmine, a shorthair cat, was found by Marines in a raid on a house in Iraq. Her future home in the United States couldn’t be released due to security reasons.

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