CHICAGO — There is much about his deployment in Afghanistan that Army Sgt. Tim Johannsen can't discuss, including where he's stationed and why a tank specialist such as him is serving in a mountainous region where tanks can't operate.
But those secrecy requirements didn't stop Johannsen from talking about his adopted dog — a loyal mutt named Leonidas, who whines outside Johannsen's hooch while he's gone.
The dog brings a touch of normalcy to an otherwise challenging environment, the soldier says.
"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 recently from Afghanistan, where he has been stationed since early this year. "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, Ill.
That kind of commitment by a serviceman to an animal is increasingly common, said Anna Maria Cannan, of the nonprofit Puppy Rescue Mission, a Colorado-based group that raises money to bring soldiers' dogs back from Afghanistan.
So far, about 130 adopted dogs have been sent 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."
The dogs can be therapeutic in helping soldiers readjust to civilian life, said Cannan, who started the program after her husband brought a dog home from a deployment in Afghanistan.
She believes that if the military made it easier to send dogs home, there would be fewer cases of post-traumatic stress.
Although soldiers officially aren't allowed to adopt pets while serving overseas, strict enforcement of that order isn't always a priority, especially in a war zone, said a spokesman for U. S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla.
Those loosely enforced rules leave troops on their own if they want to bring an adopted animal home.
And that can be a long journey, Cannan said.
First a dog has to be transported by courier from a soldier's outpost to a shelter in a departure city, where it's vaccinated and quarantined to ensure it doesn't harbor disease.
It can take time to arrange a flight home because the nonprofit is limited to shipping two to four dogs a week, Cannan said. A backlog of 20 animals is waiting to go to the states, she said .
There also are fundraising hurdles. The Puppy Rescue Mission pays $3,500 per dog for kenneling, vaccination and the air flight, Cannan said.
The soldiers have to raise the money to pay the local couriers — many of whom are forced to drive the dogs hundreds of miles through often dangerous country. This can cost as much as $800 — a financial challenge for many military families, Cannan said.
Johannsen and his wife are working to solve that problem, he said, and have set up a website to accept donations.
"I have to find a way to get (Leo) 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."
A few months into his deployment, Johannsen saw a group of dogs ganging up on a puppy who wandered into camp looking for food.
"Average hoodlums," he said, describing the pack.
So he peeled the dogs off, fed the pup and gave him a flea bath. The two quickly became inseparable.
Having a dog helps him "escape the reality of being deployed, being away from family and friends," Johannsen said. "You're stuck with the same guys all the time," he said. "It's like being in a fraternity or a club. You have a dog, and it breaks up the monotony."
Leo has gradually been accepted by the other dogs at the compound, though it took awhile.
"He's like me," Johannsen said. "No matter who attacks him, he will stand his ground, he won't give up."
There's an old battlefield truism, he says: "Leave no man behind."
The soldier said the same goes for his dog. He has no plans to leave Leo behind. For more information, visit http://bringleohome.webs.com/leosstory.htm and www.thepuppyrescuemission.org.