Soldier, wife try to get puppy out of war zone

About a month ago, a tiny mixed-breed puppy wandered onto Sgt. Lucas May's camp in Mehtar Lam, Afghanistan.

Knowing it was against military rules to keep local animals as pets, May hesitated to feed or pet the pup. But her brown eyes and floppy ears were hard to resist.

A few days later, May, a member of the Kansas Army National Guard, called his wife in Valley Center.

"He said, 'We found this dog, and we want to see if we can get permission to rescue her,' " Amanda May said. "He loves dogs, and he knows how much I love dogs.

"I told him, 'We'll do everything we can to bring her home.' "

Lucas May began by writing a letter to his commanders:

"We have all been witness firsthand to the mistreatment and neglect that Afghan animals endure," he wrote.

"Our hearts break constantly... As our tour here ends, we feel that in some small way we owe it to the animals of Afghanistan to save at least one."

The soldiers didn't name the puppy for fear that she wouldn't be allowed to stay on base. "She will be called Dog for our purposes," May wrote, "until we have a definitive answer as to her future."

The answer was yes: May could rescue the puppy. But it wouldn't be cheap.

Army regulations don't allow dogs to travel with troops. So, like other U.S. soldiers who have adopted stray animals overseas, Lucas May and his wife are raising money to bring the puppy, now named Bella, home to Kansas.

They estimate it will cost about $2,500 to fly Bella from Afghanistan to Wichita.

The puppy is in quarantine at a shelter in Kabul, where Pam Constable, a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, runs a project to help stray dogs and cats get veterinary care and find adoptive homes.

Amanda May, who is fundraising director for the Sedgwick County Animal Response Team, says Bella's future would be bleak in Afghanistan.

"Over there, she really doesn't have a chance at all," she said. "There are dogs everywhere. Most just wander the countryside and starve or get killed.

"My thing is, I wish we could rescue all the dogs. But if we could help just one, that's worth it."

The fawn-colored pup instantly lifted the spirits of Lucas May and his fellow soldiers, who have been stationed in Afghanistan since April. They are part of the National Guard's agriculture development team, promoting sustainable farming practices throughout the region.

In his letter, May, a platoon medic, related how the orphan puppy had "already proved to be a source of morale and comfort.

"When she was placed in the lap of a soldier whom is facing incredible difficulties with his family at home... Dog curled up in his lap, and I could see his ire melt away.

"She gave him ten minutes of love and comfort, something rather unattainable for many of us here."

Geri Watts, who helps run a therapy dog program at the veterans' hospital in Wichita, said she has seen the positive effect that just petting an animal can have on soldiers.

"If those guys can find a reason besides the war to be there — if they can befriend an animal and take care of it and feel that there is some love there — it kind of gets the sting out," Watts said.

Lucas May is scheduled to return home in March. He hopes Bella will be able to fly back around the same time, and live with the Mays in Valley Center.

Some might think $2,500 is a lot to pay to rescue a puppy, "especially when there are so many animals right here who need rescuing," Watts said.

"But there's more to it than that," she said. "Helping them get this dog home is like saying, 'This is important to you, so it's important to us.'

"Maybe it would give those soldiers a feeling of, 'You know that? It was a good thing I was here.' "

So far Amanda May has collected about $500. If donations exceed the $2,500 goal, she and her husband say they'll donate the extra funds to the Afghan shelter to help other animals reunite with their adoptive soldiers.

"We want to bring Bella home where she can be safe and warm and surrounded by people who love her," Amanda May said. "And if we're able to help other dogs, too, that would be great."