A dog he named Fred gave a Marine comfort and hope in war-torn Afghanistan. Could he return the favor?
Posted in , Oct 24, 2017
"What kind of dog is that?” the woman asked me. There was a slight accent to her voice that made me pause for a moment.
People were always surprised when Fred ran out from the back room to greet them at the men’s clothing store where I worked, a job to pay the bills while I finished my degree at Georgetown University.
The woman’s daughter bent down and scratched Fred behind his ears. “He’s from Afghanistan,” I said. “I served there when I was in the Marines.”
There was a flicker of interest in her dark eyes, so I kept talking.
Inside our Marine compound, we’d been under near constant attack. My nerves were shot. In the afternoons, the temperature would reach 115 and the Registan Desert, Sangin District, Helmand Province, fell quiet. There was a stark beauty to the desert you never get used to. I was staring into the heat when I saw him, short legs, floppy ears, trotting across the compound to a shady spot. He wasn’t like the other dogs I’d seen in Afghanistan. Those dogs ran in packs. This guy was fending for himself in the middle of a war zone.
I grabbed a piece of beef jerky and walked over to him. He sat but watched my every step. I paused. “How’s it going?” I said. His eyes were so expressive, almost human. I heard a noise...thwap, thwap, thwap. A cloud of dust kicked up behind him. He was wagging his tail.
He was maybe eight months old. His fur—mostly white, with large spots of light orange-brown—was covered with black bugs the size of dimes. I offered the jerky and he took it. I dug my fingers into his fur, coarse and matted in dust. He leaned into me, and I wondered if he’d ever been petted. I’d always wanted a dog as a kid, but my family was into cats.
It felt as if I’d been chosen to look out for this little guy. Before the Marines, I’d never taken on a lot of responsibility. In high school, I hadn’t pushed myself. I’d graduated anyway. That’s what had drawn me to the Marines. I wanted to find a place that would hold me to a higher standard. I’d hoped it would help me figure out what God had planned for my life.
But this was crazy. Cozying up to dogs was prohibited. There was the chance of rabies. The risk of a dog drawing a Marine’s attention away at a critical moment. It wasn’t a joke. If you got caught with a dog, it would be euthanized. Reluctantly I headed back to my corner of the compound. I felt a nudge at my ankle. I looked down to see that little guy staring up at me. “Looks like you’ve made a friend,” one of the guys shouted. But what I heard was, “Looks like a Fred.”
Fred followed me to my sleeping mat and curled up on top of it. Like it was his. Another Marine and I picked the bugs off him. He didn’t protest, even as the tweezers were pulling away clumps of fur. Fred and I soon were inseparable. No one minded. He won over all of us, even our tough-as-nails master sergeant.
When we went on patrol, Fred went too, loping along beside us, staying quiet. He wasn’t trained, of course. He didn’t do any actual work. But he felt like part of our unit.
With Fred around, I wasn’t on edge as much. I began to imagine a future outside of the Marines, back in Virginia, maybe a government intel position.
There was just one problem. How to get Fred back to the States. We’d been in the field for six weeks. Soon we’d be back at base for two weeks before heading out in the field again. That was my chance to ship Fred to my dad’s in Virginia. But at base, regulations were strictly enforced. Fred wouldn’t get a pass. There’d be no place to hide him.
I wracked my brain, trying to come up with a plan. Was I being selfish wanting to take Fred with me? He’d survived in the desert before we met. I needed a sign to be sure I was doing the right thing.
I paused in my story. The woman’s daughter was rubbing Fred’s tummy. The woman had sat down on a sofa, leaning forward, her eyes fixed on me. She was exquisitely dressed, a cut above my usual customers.
“The day before we were to leave, I sat with Fred and told him the deal,” I continued. “‘The helicopters are coming to take us back to base,’ I said. ‘It’s going to be loud. A little scary. But if you wanna come with me, you have to do this. Or you can stay. It’s up to you.’”
Fred stared back at me. Did he understand? I called my big sister, Sarah, back home in Virginia, just to make sure she didn’t think I was crazy. “I’ll do some research on my end,” she said.
The next morning, everyone was quiet as we packed up. But Fred was nowhere to be found. There was no time to look for him. I heard the low thump of the helicopter rotors. As the first giant bird descended outside the compound wall, a wave of sand erupted into the air. A brownout. The line of Marines began to move, still being pelted by dust and rocks. I had to focus on the guy’s rucksack in front of me.
Just as I was about to climb aboard, I felt a poke at my heel. There was Fred. His ears were pinned back. He looked terrified. But I had my sign. The master sergeant was behind me. He scooped Fred up like a gallon of milk, and I put him in my duffel bag. “We’re doing this!” he shouted.
At the base, I smuggled Fred over to the privately run shipping center the first chance I got. “What do I need to ship a dog to the U.S.?” I asked.
The manager took one look at Fred and laughed. “It can be done,” he said. “But there are forms to fill out. He’ll need a veterinarian’s okay. In the meantime, leave Fred here. He’ll be safe with me.”
I said a long goodbye to Fred, worried I’d never see him again. Among the requirements, that veterinarian’s sign-off, endless customs forms, proof of a rabies vaccination. I didn’t know where to start. I called Sarah and told her the bad news. “Don’t give up,” she said. But I couldn’t get it done. I shipped out again with nothing resolved.
Two weeks in, I suffered a serious concussion when a rocket landed near me. I was sent back to base, where a doctor examined me to see if I should be sent home. I did my best to stay focused during the 45-minute exam, but it was obvious even to me that I wasn’t fully there. All I could think about was Fred. If I failed, I’d be sent home immediately, with no dog in tow. I held my breath as the doc told me her findings. “You can go back out,” she said. “But only after two weeks’ traumatic brain injury therapy.”
Thank you, God! I cried silently. I rushed over to the shipping center. Fred and I had a joyous reunion, cut short when the manager handed me a thick folder.
“What’s this?” I said.
“Your sister filled out all the forms for you,” he said. “All you need is a veterinarian’s okay. And a travel kennel.”
I found a British veterinarian who agreed to give me the approval. A soldier on the base told me where I could get a kennel. I hurried everything to the shipping center. This was it.
I held Fred’s face. “Okay, buddy,” I said. “Say hi to my dad for me.” I put a piece of lunch meat in the crate and latched the door, saying a prayer he’d arrive safe and sound.
The last months of my deployment were the hardest, when the war and the dangers we faced became all too real. We lost two men, Cpl. Sean Osterman, who died while taking fire from the rooftop of our compound, and Gunnery Sgt. Justin Schmalstieg, who was killed by an IED.
Their deaths hit me hard. I felt a responsibility to them. To somehow honor their memory.
“I didn’t want them to be forgotten,” I said quietly to the woman and her daughter.
“How long have you been back?” the woman asked.
“Three years.” I’d gotten engaged, broken it off, not ready for a relationship. I’d taken a job doing intel work. Then quit. Enrolled in college. Fred was with me through all those changes, my constant companion. We had a story everyone loved—but no ending. That thing I’d gone into the Marines searching for? I still hadn’t found it.
“It’s been hard,” I said. “I’ve had nightmares. I’m nervous around crowds. For the longest time, I didn’t want to talk about what happened. But people kept asking me about Fred. I had to tell his story, and it’s helped me. A lot. Even more than counseling.” The woman nodded. She pulled her daughter close. “I was born in Afghanistan,” she said. “My whole family fled once the Taliban took power. Thank you for your story and your service.” She reached down and patted Fred. “It’s nice to meet another Afghan.”
I looked at Fred. Born into a war zone, he was resilient, stubbornly positive. An inspiration. This goofy-looking mutt. God had thrown us together for a reason. I had a story to tell. Not only about an amazing dog but about those whose lives had inspired me. Sean and Justin. All my comrades who had given so much. Even about Afghanistan, a troubled but beautiful land. It started when a dog from the desert was sent into my life, a dog called Fred.
|Craig Grossi is the author of Craig & Fred: A Marine, A Stray Dog, and How They Rescued Each Other (2017, William Morrow).|