Man’s best friend, even while deployed in Afghanistan
There’s a lot to his deployment in Afghanistan that Sgt. Tim Johannsen can’t discuss.
When he speaks to his stateside wife things like where he’s stationed, his missions, and what the 23-year-old Army tanker is doing in a mountainous region where tanks can’t even travel are taboo.
But security doesn’t prevent Johannsen from talking about is his adopted dog – a loyal mutt named Leonidas, who whines outside his bunk while he’s on mission and shelters with him as mortars fall.
The dog brings a touch of normalcy to an otherwise straining environment, Johannsen said in a phone interview from Afghanistan.
“You’ll come back and you’re walking up to the chow hall and he comes over eyes-big, happy-as-all-get-out to see you,” Johannsen said, referring to the pup he named for the fabled Spartan King. “You forget about the stuff that’s going on over here.”
When his tour ends in 2012, Johannsen wants to bring Leonidas (Leo for short) home to his wife Kaydee in Downers Grove.
That commitment to an animal is increasingly common, said Anna Maria Cannan, of the non-profit Puppy Rescue Mission, a Colorado-based group raising money to transport soldiers’ dogs from Afghanistan.
She says word-of-mouth among soldiers who’ve adopted pets has spread interest in her organization. So far, about 130 adopted dogs have been brought stateside, she said.
“Soldiers from all across the U.S. are finding these lovely companions they don’t want to leave behind,” Cannan said. “To leave them there, left to die is hard on soldiers.”
Technically, adopting pets is on a long list of forbidden activities under General Order No. 1, said a spokesman for U.S. Central Command in Tampa.
“These dogs are extremely therapeutic” for soldiers “readjusting to normal life,” said Cannan, who started the program after her husband brought a dog home from deployment. “If the military would just allow these dogs to come home I believe the (post-traumatic stress) rate would be lower.”
Those rules leave troops on their own if they want to bring home an animal. It’s a long journey, Cannan said. The dog must be transported by a courier from a soldiers’ outpost to a shelter in a departure city, where they are vaccinated and quarantined for a few weeks to ensure they don’t harbor diseases. It can take weeks to secure a flight because the non-profit is limited to shipping up to four dogs a week – with a current backlog of 20 dogs waiting to travel home, she said.
There are fundraising hurdles, too. The Puppy Rescue Mission pays $3,500 kenneling, vaccination and flight, Cannan said. But soldiers must raise money to pay local couriers – many of whom are forced to drive the dogs hundreds of miles through IED laden territory. This can cost as much as $800, she said.
A few months into his deployment, Johannsen saw a group of dogs ganging up on a puppy that wandered into camp looking for food. “Average hoodlums,” he said, describing the pack. After peeling off the dogs, he fed and flea bathed the puppy he now calls Leo.
Having a dog helps “escape the reality of being deployed, being away from family and friends,” Johannsen said. “You’re stuck with the same guys all the time. It’s like being in fraternity or a club. You have a dog and it breaks up the monotony.”
The pup has gradually been accepted by the other dogs at the compound, though it took a while. He’s also developed a taste for pork chops and ribs, Johannsen said.
“He’s like me,” Johannsen said. “No matter who attacks him, he will stand his ground. He won’t give up.”
Johannsen is working with the Puppy Rescue Network to pay for Leonidas’ trip home. But he still has to find and pay a courier. To raise that money he and his wife Kaydee set up a website. (http://bringleohome.webs.com/leosstory.htm)
“I have to find a way to get him to Kabul without locals or the Taliban finding out,” Johannsen said. “I know I can give him a better home back there than he can ever get here.”
For him, it’s all about an old battlefield truism: “Leave no man behind.”
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