A connection beyond words

Terri Crisp, program manager for Operation Baghdad Pups, shares a soulful moment with a camel in Iraq. Photo Courtesy of Cindy Hurn

When Cindy Hurn’s friend invited her to come to Iraq in 2011, the local author and ghost-writer’s first reaction was, “Why? What for?”

“While I knew civilians were over there helping out the military in various ways, it seemed a dangerous, unstable place to be,” said Hurn, of Coupeville, in a recent interview about the book “No Buddy Left Behind: Bringing U.S. Troops’ Dogs and Cats Safely Home from the Combat Zone.” Hurn co-wrote the book with her friend Terri Crisp, a volunteer with Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals International, who also served as SPCA’s program manager of Operation Baghdad Pups.

Cindy Hurn, co-author of “No Buddy Left Behind: Bringing U.S. Troops’ Dogs and Cats Safely Home from the Combat Zone,” speaks of her experiences in Iraq during a presentation at Wind & Tide Bookshop in Oak Harbor Feb. 11. Melanie Hammons/Whidbey Crosswind

Hurn said the book’s storyline chronicles Crisp’s two-fold determination: one, to bring to the US abandoned dogs and cats rescued in Iraq by American troops, and two, reunite them with the service members who had adopted them. Operation Baghdad Pups would eventually succeed in evacuating several hundred animals, mostly dogs and cats, from Iraq to the U.S., three of whom Hurn escorted herself.

Although Hurn had lived overseas before, coming face-to-face with Middle Eastern culture for the first time was an eye-opener for her. Her time in Iraq was spent in a safe zone, but even so, she picked up on the apprehension the general populace must have felt.

“If you walked into a cafe, everyone’s eyes immediately went towards you, checking out who you were, and what you were carrying in your hands,” she said.

“And I was in a supposedly safe zone,” she continued. “For the first time, I experienced an inkling of what it was like for the soldiers assigned to Iraq, who most definitely were not in a safe zone.”

She said the different culture of the Middle East also influenced the people’s outlook on animals, which is in sharp contrast to American culture.

“Over here, the mindset overwhelmingly is that animals are our pets, our friends. There, the sometimes desperate conditions and poverty mean the people are raised to see them quite differently,” she said.

Hurn said one of the first reactions of American soldiers was to adopt abandoned puppies, something forbidden by regulations that Hurn says were in the soldiers’ best interests.

“It was not unheard of for militants to take a puppy and strap a bomb to it,” said Hurn. “There were risks there.”

Still, one of these alliances came to the attention of  Crisp in 2007, when Army Sgt. Eddie Watson wrote to SPCA International asking for help bringing back to the U.S. a dog named Charlie that his unit had adopted.

“Even though people were giving monetary gifts to make this happen, the question was how to accomplish it,” said Hurn. “You can just imagine the red tape associated with the logistics alone.”

There was a happy ending, though. It took Crisp six months to get Charlie to the U.S., where he was finally reunited with Watson – on Valentine’s Day 2008, no less. But that wasn’t really the end of the story. News spread of Charlie’s rescue, and soon, other requests for rescues were being forwarded to SPCA International.

“Everyone close to the situation saw that there was now a window of opportunity to get these animals out of Iraq. Not knowing how much longer that window would be open, the need to act on it right away took priority,” said Hurn.

At a recent interview at Wind & Tide Bookshop, Hurn read excerpts from the book and answered people’s questions.

“How do you determine which service member of the unit gets to keep the animal?” someone asked.

“Good question,” Hurn responded. “If several wanted to adopt, it likely would go to whomever could provide the best conditions to house the animal once stateside.”

Cindy Hurn, right, co-author of "No Buddy Left Behind: Bringing U.S. Troops' Dogs and Cats Safely Home from the Combat Zone," speaks of her experiences in Iraq during a presentation at Wind & Tide Bookshop in Oak Harbor Feb. 11. Melanie Hammons/Whidbey Crosswind

It’s common knowledge that soldiers often bond deeply with adults and children in other countries and even with the working service dogs that often save their lives. One surprise is that many of the animals adopted and rescued during Operation Baghdad Pups answer some very deep-seated needs in the lives of those who adopt them, said Hurn.

She said the entire experience of compiling the book had opened her eyes not only to how military members are affected by combat, but also their families.

“We talk about soldiers having PTSD,” she said. “Think for a minute of what their families are going through as well.

“You can imagine how it is for some of these soldiers who return from the war zone,” continued Hurn. “Maybe they’ve lost a friend or two over there. What a comfort some of these animals they adopt can be to them. The book is just filled with examples.”

One of the examples she cited was the case of a Navy SEAL whose experiences left him silent, and unable to talk about his trauma. His mother said she’d lost her son, characterizing him as “wounded and shut-down.”

But that changed the day he was reunited with his dog.

“That dog brought my son home,” said the mom. “I would see him sitting out in the garden in the back, with his arm around his dog, just talking to him.”

Crisp and Hurn’s book, “No Buddy Left Behind: Bringing U.S. Troops’ Dogs and Cats Safely Home from the Combat Zone,” may be purchased at Wind & Tide Bookshop in Oak Harbor.