A marine company known as the Lava Dogs was clearing out a house in Baghdad when they heard a strange clicking and snuffling noise. But when they found out the source, they were ready to shoot, until they discovered that it was merely a puppy.
Marine regs say that Marines are not to make pets of animals they discover on the job. If they find a starving puppy or donkey, or any other animal, they are supposed to dispose of it on sight. And yes, that means shoot it. But these marines couldn't bring themselves to shoot an otherwise innocent puppy, and instead took the dog back with them to their base, naming him, rather unimaginatively, Lava.
That was where Jay Kopelman first encountered Lava, living with the other members of the Lava Dogs. Lava was annoying. He chewed up gear, made noise when they were supposed to be sleeping, and urinated and defecated on just about anything, too. But very quickly, he came to see Lava as less of an annoyance and more as something that would keep him sane doing a job that could easily turn deadly in the blink of an eye.
But Jay knew he wouldn't be in Baghdad forever, and if no one else helped the puppy, he would be killed by the brass, or another soldier who wouldn't want to, but would have to do so. And so began the search- a search for someone to vaccinate the puppy, to get him some kind of papers, to get him out of Iraq and into another country from which he'd be allowed entry to the US. It took many people working on both sides of the world, from NPR journalist Anne Garrels, who lived with the puppy for months in the Red Zone of Baghdad- where just to be American is seen as a deadly crime, and to be seen speaking with one can get you killed.
Kopelman wasn't alone in saving an animal and wanting it to survive the war zone. He recounts the stories of other soldiers who saved animals and underwent the same sorts of trials that he went through to save Lava. He tells of one soldier who fought hard to save his dog, and just before the dog went onto the plane, was shot by a civilian contractor, practically in his arms. Of another set of puppies, trapped in a sewer, being fed by marines, until the puppies were found by a higher-up, and buried under a load of dirt, meant to suffocate. The marines dug them out by hand and saved them from death right then, but were unable to keep the puppies alive forever.
I loved this book, but Kopelman definitely doesn't pull his punches. He tells us the reason for the order not to save animals. It's because the armed forces have taken away your moral clarity in order to make you be able to kill. Anything that allows you to have compassion, to try and save people you are supposed to be fighting, or to have any kind of human feeling for them, can quickly get you killed if your foes take advantage of that. Modern American military forces are trained to shoot when ordered, and if you can't do that, well, you're pretty much useless.
But they can't see that these soldiers have to have some kind of life when they come home, because, hopefully, they will be coming home. Reading about how these soldiers are trained felt almost like being punched in the gut. It's a real visceral pain to read about how the army takes away all of their moral compass to enable them to kill. Even the k-9 units used in war are almost regarded more as tools. When they get too old to serve (about 10 years old), a military review board judges their cases, and in most of them, the dogs are deemed non-adoptable and Euthanized. Why? Because the dogs, who served their handlers well, are trained to attack, and kill, and it takes very little to set them off- not the kind of dog most people would be able to handle. And yet, this is how the army trained them to be.
Reading this book made me sad and angry about how soldiers were being treated, and animals as well. But unlike many others, Jay Kopelman was able to save Lava, and lives with him today in Southern California. Happy endings remain elusive for both of them. As he says in his book, Lava has taken many obedience courses, but has yet to pass any of them. But just like his new owner, Lava is still working on his life. We can only hold out hope for both of them to have some kind of normal life. I highly recommend this book for showing what the war in Iraq ia really like, and the cost on the humans and animals who have to fight it and those who get caught up in it. It's amazing, and will have a strong effect on anyone who reads it.