The Dogs of WarGiving meaning to ‘Man’s Best Friend’
By Jason Calabrese
Having recently finished my Army enlistment and returned to the States following my deployment in Iraq, I am constantly asked about my experiences. Friends and family are curious to know what it was really like.
I don’t dwell on the usual negative aspects, nor do I mention the positives.
What I do talk about is the abundance of stray dogs.
In Iraq, stray dogs are everywhere. The Iraqi people don’t care much for pets, so the dogs there are considered, at best, just part of the scenery and a nuisance. However, American soldiers love them. Likewise, the stray dogs love Americans. They somehow intuit that soldiers are a soft touch and flock to us for companionship, affection and, of course, food.
American soldiers in Iraq are alienated from the culture they’re accustomed to. Perhaps they befriend stray dogs so readily because the dogs serve as a reminder of life back home. They also provide a brief hiatus from the monotony of regular duty. In a position that requires emotional callousness, I have seen shell-shocked Army privates, stone-faced sergeants and austere officers display amazing compassion and emotion through the therapeutic interaction they’ve had with these dogs.
Many dogs came and went during my time in Iraq, but there’s one canine I recall that became a particular favorite of the soldiers I served with.
In February 2004, my troop was sent to Adwar, a small city in central Iraq between Samarra and Tikrit. Our base was an abandoned industrial factory consisting of four large hangars, several underground bunkers, a defact (that’s Army-speak for cafeteria) that boasted a huge mural of Saddam Hussein, a large landfill, a junkyard with scrap heaps, and about 14 stray dogs. This is where we first met a three-legged Jack Russell terrier that later would embed itself into our hearts.
We affectionately named the dog Tripod. He was quite obedient and cordial. We would pet him, feed him and lavish him with affection while confiding the stories of loved ones back home and plans for R&R, as well as other stories and secrets. Tripod would gnaw contentedly on leftovers while lending a sympathetic ear.
The entire troop grew to love the dog. He became a common subject in our conversations with family back home. As a result, bones, biscuits and dog food started rolling in. We even had packages and letters sent with Sgt. Tripod’s name on them. He also was spoiled with biscuits and ribs left over from the defact(?). Not only was he our troop mascot, he also was our guardian angel. He was one of us.
Late one night we heard a ferocious dogfight taking place within the walls of our base. Rising above the din were the blood-curdling yelps of our three-legged soldier being mauled by a pack of wild dogs.
“Tripod’s been attacked!” I heard Private Hart shout. It was true – the pack had ravaged him.
Sgt. Singh and Sgt. 1st Class Togafau raced the dog to Capt. Bighman, the troop doctor. He wasn’t a veterinarian, but he and his aides worked on stitching the dog back up. The operation, I’m told, was quite intensive.
Tripod’s recovery was all we talked about for weeks. Soldiers would return from patrols and check in for a progress report. Back home, our families seemed more concerned with the dog’s health than our own welfare!
After a few weeks of intensive care, Tripod was back on his feet – all three of them – but he was never the same. He had lost his stride and no longer possessed his former vigor after the attack. He had done his time and now served the best he could as an ailing watchdog.
In the end, my experience in Iraq amounts to little more than an abundance of repressed memories. The events and soldiers names will fade. But I’m willing to bet every soldier who served with C Troop, 1-4 Cavalry during that deployment always will remember Tripod. He affected each of us. His story is just another trivial tale that never made the evening headlines.
Jason Calabrese served as a sergeant in Operation Iraqi Freedom II, 2004-2005.