- Associated Press - Sunday, December 25, 2016

BECKLEY, W.Va. (AP) - To those who pass her while she’s out for a stroll near her home, she probably doesn’t seem much different than any other happy, energetic dog.

But the ground underneath Kaia’s feet is much different these days than it was seven years ago when the tiny puppy wandered onto the grounds of Kabul International Airport in Afghanistan.

She was without a family and in search of food and a soft play to rest her head. And the soldiers and military contractors she found, much like her, were also without their families, and were quite willing to provide the love and attention the small stray needed.

Among the contractors was Beckley native Aaron Neal, who was in Kabul to help set up a new compound for NATO.

When Neal first arrived in Afghanistan, he lived on the military side of the base while the NATO compound was established.

That’s when the brown and black dog with a few stray white markings showed up in search of friendly faces.

“She was a tiny puppy and she just walked up on the base,” he said. “Nobody knew where from.”

Although animals were not permitted on the base, members of the United States and foreign military, as well as contractors, took her in and began feeding her in an enclosed area. A doghouse was soon built.

“Everybody chipped in,” he said. “It was a dog - an animal - and I guess when people would come and play it would help break up the day a little.”

In the beginning, the pup was fed people food, but Neal said the Internet made buying dog food, treats and toys quite easy.

“Amazon worked pretty good for getting whatever,” he said.

And as word of the furry addition spread to loved ones back home, overseas shipments of food and toys became frequent deliveries as well.

Eventually, however, the military’s no-animal policy caught up with Kaia - an acronym for the airport - and she was ordered off base.

A member of a foreign military attempted to have Kaia sent back to their home country, but the plan fell through, and an Afghan family was set to adopt her at one point.

However, Neal had only been temporarily assigned to that base and was set to move to a nearby NATO-run camp.

After receiving permission from his boss, he took Kaia along.

For the next seven months, the growing dog slept under his desk during the day and beside him at night, but her care continued to remain a group effort.

He frequently took her back to visit the area she once called home.

“When I took her back to the airport, they would always have more toys,” he said. “People would take her for walks and I wouldn’t see her all day. When it came time for me to leave, I’d have to go find her so I could go back.”

And children liked her, too.

“The military people would bring local kids over who had been hurt in bombings and do things for them,” Neal said. “They said to bring the dog over to try to help cheer them up.”

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Eventually, the time came for Neal to find a way to get Kaia home. It was something, he said, he knew he would do as soon as he traveled with her to his new camp.

Through research, he discovered an organization founded by a Washington Post reporter designed to help rescue animals from Kabul.

“They still had a place in downtown Kabul to make sure they had the shots and paperwork so they can transport them to the U.S.,” Neal explained.

So in July 2010, he handed Kaia’s leash over to a worker who promised to help get her safely back to his parents in West Virginia.

“She got in the cage and I hoped it would work out,” he said.

Kaia remained in Kabul for a week before flying into Pakistan, New York City and then Raleigh, North Carolina, where she was picked up by a friend who delivered her to Beckley.

Neal received updates with her flight numbers throughout her journey.

Flying a dog from Kabul to North Carolina, Neal said, costs about the same as flying a human. The expense, however, was worth it, as Neal said Kaia’s life in the United States is most certainly better than it would have been in Afghanistan.

Had she not been taken in as a puppy, he said she probably wouldn’t have lived more than a week or two on her own.

And had she gone to an Afghan family, he said he couldn’t guess how long she would have lived, but said it probably wouldn’t have been very long.

“They just let them run around,” he said. “She might have survived a while, but it wouldn’t have been as good.”

Kaia stays mostly with Neal’s parents as he continues to travel for work, and he says her care is much like it was when she was in Afghanistan as he helps when he’s home and his brother Ryan even chips in, walking the excited German Shepherd/Basenji mix around ground and mountains much different than those once called home.

“It’s a group effort,” Neal said. “She’s a family dog.”

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Information from: The Register-Herald, https://www.register-herald.com

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