The Ultimate Dog Lover

Operation Puppy Love

LINK: The Ultimate Dog Lover

When my eighteen-year-old son, Alex, first joined the Army, I wanted to shake him and say, "Don't go." But I'd always tried to support him, and I didn't want to hold him back from something he truly wanted to do.  After he was deployed to Iraq, Alex and I kept in touch through his MySpace page. One of the things Alex wrote about was making friends with a dog the soldiers had trained for base protection. My son had always loved dogs. He'd grown up with a seventy-pound German shepherd named KC, who'd been devoted to him. When the dog on the base had puppies, Alex told me that he and the rest of the unit were looking after them.

From the way he described the puppies, I could tell they were like little pieces of home for the soldiers-something to love. Understandably, Alex had other things on his mind besides keeping in touch with his mother. But his platoon buddies also had MySpace pages, and, eager for more news about Alex and his life in Iraq, I started visiting them daily. One day I saw a picture posted of Alex and another soldier holding two of the puppies. I learned the other soldier was SPC Matt Alford, one of the men in Alex's platoon. I sent him an e-mail about the puppy picture and asked if he was a friend of my son's. He wrote back that he was, and we began corresponding regularly. Matt became like my adopted son. He was always so open and willing to give me updates about what was happening there. When I felt worried because I hadn't heard from Alex in a while, I'd send Matt a message. He'd bang on the thin trailer wall that separated their rooms and yell, "Varela, your mom's online and says hi!" Alex would yell back, "Tell her I say hello and that I love her." From time to time, I'd hear more about the puppies, who by then had grown into young dogs. One of them, a female named Bradley Position (after a Bradley tank), or BP for short, used to walk with Alex's platoon when they were out on patrol, as if she were protecting them.

Alex came home to California on leave at the end of January, just in time to celebrate his nineteenth birthday. During his "eighteen days on the ground" (eighteen days of vacation plus travel time), he had a great time visiting with family and friends. We barbecued and played video games together, and Alex spent sometime with his Dad in Nevada. The day I sent him back to Iraq was one of the hardest days for me. I wanted to keep him at home so badly, but I knew he had to go. That was the last time I saw him. Alex was killed May 19, 2007, when his Bradley armored vehicle was bombed by an improvised explosive device. The devastation and profound sense of loss I felt at losing my son is something only those who have shared that pain can fully understand. A bit of my heart and soul lived and died with Alex, and while I was not alone in my grief, it was terribly lonely. I kept in touch with Matt after Alex's death. He, and the rest of the platoon, were always there for me and a source of comfort during that deeply painful time.

When I received Alex's possessions, I found a whole stack of photos of Alex and BP. I was so moved; looking at the pictures, I could tell that this dog had been special to my son. Knowing how she had stuck by the soldiers, even in the middle of the war zone, made her special to me as well. I asked Matt about her and learned that she was pregnant. Then, a few weeks later, in the beginning of November, I received an e-mail from Matt saying, "The puppies were born last night!" There were five puppies in the litter, but only one little female survived. They named her DJ after one of the guys in the unit, because both of them loved to eat! That's when Matt had the idea to send DJ to me. BP was part of the unit and had to stay, but Matt wanted me to have her puppy. Matt would never take credit for Operation Puppy Love.

He always said it was the work of the whole platoon, and I truly believe that. They didn't have much time because they would be leaving Baghdad within weeks, but somehow they made it happen.

When I think about what it took to get this puppy to American soil, I'm amazed they pulled it off. They did a lot of networking, and one of Alex's officers contacted Gryphon Airlines, the only commercial airline flying out of Baghdad. The airline's vice president got onboard from the beginning. He was so excited to help that he even e-mailed me personally to keep me informed of their progress. An embedded photographer attached to the unit took photos of the operation. I don't know how they managed to get a kennel, but the pictures that show two-month-old DJ being loaded onto the plane are proof that they did. They also hooked up with BlackFive, a military blog, that helped coordinate an escort for DJ from Baghdad to Kuwait and then on to Washington, D.C. To this day, I don't know how much Operation Puppy Love cost the guys in the platoon-and they won't tell me. But I know how much they make, and it's barely a living wage, especially for the ones with families of their own. Sending DJ is just one example of the kindness and generosity they showed me in those dark days after Alex's death. Focusing on the progress of DJ's journey gave me something to think about other than my grief.

DJ arrived at Dulles International Airport in early January. The animal transportation service I found told me the cross-country trip would take about ten days. While they were on the road, I got daily reports from the driver/handler.

Word of Operation Puppy Love spread through the Internet and became national news. When DJ arrived at my house on January 16, 2008, it was quite a show. People were everywhere-in the front yard, along the sidewalk, and out on the street. Members of Rolling Thunder, the motorcycle group that travels the country to honor veterans and fallen soldiers, came over four hundred miles to stand in honor, along with the Patriot Guard Riders. The moment approached for me to finally meet DJ. I was nervous. All these people were watching, including a local television crew. What if DJ doesn't like me? I thought. As it turned out, I had nothing to worry about. When the driver put the wiggling, black-and-white puppy in my arms, she immediately started licking my face and wouldn't stop. The crowd broke into cheers as I hugged the little dog to my chest, tears streaming down my face.

After everyone left and the confusion and excitement of the day quieted down, DJ and I went out to the backyard. We'd both been through so much, and even though we couldn't communicate with words, our bond was strong. As I sat stroking her sleek coat, she showered me with puppy kisses. It seemed so natural to have her; it was like she'd always belonged to me.

Today it feels as though we were meant to be together. Having DJ with me helps to soothe the pain, at least a little. I feel as if I'm sharing something with Alex and that a small piece of my heart is being healed with every wag of her tail. She's such an affectionate dog and loves attention. Matt told me that the soldiers spoiled her over there; they treated her like a queen, sharing their chicken and rice with her, and giving her treats. She'd always had a buddy sitting with her or taking her out on patrol. I think DJ's story says a lot about our soldiers in Iraq. The love my son and his unit had for these dogs gave them something to hold on to, and they generously shared that gift with me when I needed it most. I know Alex would have been glad that this sweet, rambunctious puppy made it here to be with me. It was a small victory, something going right against all the odds.


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