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Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Love Conquers All Obstacles as Soldier Locates His Lost Dog in Iraq and Brings It Home to Maryland

Ruben Castaneda of the Washington Post last week penned an incredible story about a wounded American soldier who labored for seventeen months to rescue his beloved dog from war-torn Iraq.

John E. Smathers, a captain in the Army Reserve from Laurel, Maryland, was part of the American force which invaded Iraq in March of 2003. Shortly thereafter he found an abandoned two and one-half month old Canaan puppy in Baghdad which another soldier in his unit named Scout. Smathers and Scout quickly bonded and the dog became his unit's de facto mascot. True to his name, Scout served as a sentry outside the soldiers' residence and would immediately sound an alarm if anyone ventured near that he did not know. When Scout later became ill with parvovirus, a highly contagious virus which attacks the intestinal tract of dogs and can lead to death if not treated, Smathers and his fellow soldiers nursed him back to health with antibiotics.

The good times came to an abrupt end on February 21, 2004 when Smathers and his platoon were ambushed by anti-imperialist forces south of Baghdad. Smathers received a broken arm and a smashed-up knee in the attack and was evacuated to Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington. Back in Baghdad, the forever faithful Scout maintained a lonely vigil outside Smathers' residence awaiting his return. Eventually Smathers' unit pulled out and Scout was left behind. Ordinarily this would have been the end of the story as is so often the case with wartime romances between soldiers and their dogs and soldiers and their girlfriends. This was not the case with Captain Smathers and Scout, however.

As soon as he had recuperated, Smathers began flooding the Baghdad area with e-mails and photographs of Scout in a desperate attempt to locate the dog he had unwillingly left behind. At first, the news was distressing. Scout had been picked up by a dogcatcher and was placed on death row. Demonstrating a resolve equal to that of his former caretaker, the resourceful canine dug a hole underneath the fence imprisoning him and escaped.

Months passed without any further information about Scout until on August 5th of last year Smathers received an e-mail from a soldier in Baghdad who related that he had seen Scout but that the dog was pretty skinny and had sustained an eye injury. Smathers then arranged to have the dog captured and taken to the Baghdad Zoo where he was attended to for one year by a veterinarian whom Smathers had known earlier in Iraq.

During this time Smathers made numerous unsuccessful attempts to bring Scout home to Maryland. He was turned down by the military because soldiers are not allowed to bring home animals from foreign soil. He then attempted to have Scout put on a plane in Amman, Jordan but the luckless canine was turned away at the Jordanian border. Finally, with the assistance of Bonnie Buckley, an animal-lover from Massachusetts who operates a web site designed to help reunite soldiers with their overseas' dogs, Smathers was able to make contact with an unnamed English woman who runs an animal shelter in Kuwait. She then took Scout from Baghdad to Kuwait and put him on a commercial airliner to Holland. From there Scout flew into Dulles on August 22nd of this year. When he was let out of his cage, he immediately went straight to Smathers and knelt at his feet.

Speaking of the ordeal of locating and bringing home his dog, Smathers told the Post, "It was frustrating. Every door I tried was getting slammed in my face. I just kept knocking. As long as Scout was alive, I'd keep trying." As for Scout, the bad times are now just bad memories. He lives with Smathers (See photo), a lawyer by trade, in Howard County and every Sunday his caretaker's six sisters bring their kids to play with him.

While it is understandable that he does not want to be ever separated from his beloved dog again, Smathers has made a hasty mistake in erecting an electronic fence around his one-acre property. These devices, which send an electrical charge to dogs attempting to leave the yard, are cruel and inhumane; a conventional fence, although more expensive, would have been better.

Nonetheless, Smathers should be commended not only for his loyalty but also for his perseverance in surmounting all the obstacles and red tape. Scout is likewise a very courageous dog who has suffered much in his short life; hopefully, only good things are in store for him from now on. The fact that he was able to survive on his own amidst the chaos and destruction of Baghdad is a miracle which is surpassed only by the incredible good fortune that Smathers had in locating a fellow soldier who not only recognized the dog in the street but additionally took the time to relay the information on to him. The odds against this heartwarming story coming true must be at least a million to one.

It is nevertheless distressing that man continues to employ dogs and other animals on the battlefield. Dogs are not only used for guard duty and as mascots, but also to test the efficacy of both bullets and bombs. According to Shawn Plourde (What Did You Do in the War Fido?), during World War II canines were used to lay telephone wires, and to deliver messages, supplies, and bombs (tankdogs). In Vietnam they were used to clear Vietcong tunnels and caves and to sniff out land mines and booby traps. Unfortunately, more than two-hundred of these courageous dogs were left behind after the troops pulled out to be tortured by the Vietnamese. As horrible as that may be, it is not nearly as diabolical as the unceremonious exterminations with which ungrateful Americans reward their faithful war dogs once they have outlived their usefulness to them.

Even Scout is a victim of both genetic manipulators and warmongers. Although it is not known how he came to be living in Baghdad, Canaans (also known as Kelev K'naani) were originally bred by Rudolph and Rudolphina Menzel from redomesticated Pariah dogs captured in Palestine. Farmers in Israel use them to herd livestock and the Israeli military uses them as guards, mine detectors, messengers, and as assistants to the Red Cross. This is barbarism of the worst sort. Dogs and all other animals do not belong on the battlefield, in research laboratories, or in breeding mills.

Photo: Michael Robinson-Chavez, Washington Post.