A soldier's exit strategy for dog adopted in Afghanistan
A nonprofit group is working to bring soldiers' adopted pets home from combat areas overseas.
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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 (www.thepuppyrescuemission.org), 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.
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 (http://bringleohome.webs.com/leosstory.htm) 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.
STUDIES SHOW OWNERS REAP PHYSIOLOGICAL BENEFITS FROM PETS
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says owning a pet can improve your blood pressure, cholesterol levels and triglyceride levels. And a National Institutes of Health-funded study found that dog owners who had suffered heart attacks were far more likely to be alive a year later than heart-attack patients who didn't own dogs.
But does pet ownership lend itself to a more fulfilling social life?
Dr. Allen McConnell, a professor of psychology at Miami University in Ohio, says yes.
Pet owners "viewed their pets as serving needs such as giving them a sense of belonging and a sense of meaningful existence," said McConnell, co-author of "Friends With Benefits: On the Positive Consequences of Pet Ownership," published last month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. "Pets give them a sense of control and ability to make sense of their world."
Pet owners have higher self-esteem, are more physically fit and are less lonely than non-pet owners, the report's findings showed. They also tend to be more extroverted than non-owners, are less fearful and less preoccupied.
McConnell has studied how people view themselves and how their self-perceptions affected their judgment and behavior over the previous15 years. Over time, he began to take note of studies suggesting that pet owners with chronic illnesses fared better than sufferers who did not have pets.
McConnell found that while such studies seemed correlated, outside factors such as income levels could have contributed to subjects' health.
"(Researchers) were looking at special populations, not everyday people," McConnell said.
The authors of "Friends With Benefits" conducted three studies in which researchers questioned owners and non-owners alike about their well-being, asked owners whether their pets fulfilled social needs and brought pet owners into a laboratory to measure whether pets helped them stave off social isolation or rejection.
Some of the study's results surprised McConnell.
For example, pets tend to complement owners' relationships with humans, rather than replace them — running contrary to the stereotype of the "crazy cat woman, whose world revolves around her cats," McConnell said.
"When (owners) got more support from human beings, they got more from their pets," he said.
Pets can also serve as vital support systems for people who lack traditional support systems, McConnell said.
"I would imagine that someone in a combat situation like in Afghanistan would find real support from a pet, that they would have real benefits from having the pet there especially when a support system like family or relatives are not there, at least in a physical way," McConnell said.
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