A Team Effort Repatriates A Fallujah Orphan With Four Paws


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April, 2005

The First Battalion, Third Marine Regiment from Hawaii had been going from house to house in Fallujah, Iraq sniffing out insurgents.

It’s a life and death assignment carried out by a group of American tough guys nicknamed the Lava Dogs.

At one home, they hear a strange sort of whimpering and cautiously turn a corner as they follow the source of this sound they had never before encountered. In Fallujah, you never know what’s around the next corner. Around this corner they collectively smile when they discover the source of the whimpering: A four-week old floppy eared puppy dog.

They scoop up the dog and return him to the base.

Coincidentally, Lt. Col. Jay Kopelman of the U. S. Marines is also stationed at that base as a liaison to help train Iraqi special forces to deal with the insurgencies. For Kepelman, 45, this was his second tour of duty in Iraq. If I have one weakness in life, it’s dogs,” he says. “And, well, a puppy is one thing that can make any soldier melt.”

At first, the pup, which was named Lava, slept under a cot. But as the November weather grew surprisingly cold, Kopelman brought Lava inside. He found a box and a fleece pull over for Lava At around that time Kopelman said, “I realized I had to find a way to get this dog home.”

That’s a task that proved easier said that done since dogs aren’t allowed on the base in the first place, something Kopelman understood. “After all, you can’t have pets in the middle of a war.” But when you’re in love in a puppy, the rules don’t matter. Still, he knew he couldn’t receive help from the U.S. military.

Kopelman twice received orders to work on other assignments elsewhere in Iraq. Knowing he would return, and not wanting to endanger Lava, he thought it better to leave the pup behind to be cared for by fellow Marines. Eventually, Lava moved to Baghdad and was sheltered at a home being used by staff of National Public Radio (NPR) where reporter Anne Garrels spent much of her free time trying “repatriate” the pup back to the states. But she just couldn’t successfully arrange a way out for Lava.

Meanwhile, in Rancho Santa Fe, CA Kopelman’s fiancé, Ellen Stiefler, had a friend married to a guy who happened be the grandson of the late Helen Woodward. Not exactly, a direct connection, but good enough to get the attention of the Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe, CA. The shelter was at that time (December, 2004) spearheading their 6th Annual Iams Home 4 the Holidays Pet Adoption Drive, working with 1,800 agencies around the country to encourage pet adoptions into forever homes.

John Van Zante, public relations director at the shelter, told the Iams pet food company and Ken Licklider of Vohne Liche Kennels and Vohne Liche Securities in Denver, IN about efforts to bring Lava to California. “Iams provided the financial support to get the job done, and Ken made it possible with his know how,” Van Zante says.

Since 1993, Licklider has been providing police and military with working dogs. Many working dogs in Iraq are from Licklider’s facility. Licklider and Brian Giffith, a staff member based in Iraq, attempted to figure out a way to get the pup home.

Just when it looked like Lava was going to make it back safely, Kopelman received the orders he wanted to hear – it was time to return home. But he was forced to leave Lava behind in Garrels’ care. No problem with that, he trusted Garrels. But soon Garrels was also told to return home. That’s when an Iraqi citizen name Varham stepped in (Varham isn’t his real name, but he feels he requires a pseudonym to protect his identify). When Lava first arrived at the NPR house, Varham, an NPR worker, was hardly enamoured with the pup. But Lava quickly wiggled his way into his heart. Varham not only took over Lava’s care when Garrels departed, he taught the dog to play soccer.

On mid-March, Licklider and Griffith worked out transportation details, and on April 4 Kopelman and Stiefler greeted their newest family member at San Diego International Airport. Later an introduction to LuLu, the family’s 8-year old golden retriever went well, as if the two dogs had known one another forever. “I couldn’t believe Lava had learned soccer,” Kopelman says and laughs. “He’s great.”

Licklider says right now there are likely over 500 working dogs in Iraq, many do bomb detection and/or protection work, others sniff out land mines. “There’s no question that the death toll of Americans and Iraqis would be higher if it wasn’t for the dogs,” he says.

When a hotel in Baghdad was recently bombed, the terrorists went around back to avoid being the protection and detection dogs stationed at the front the entrances of the building. The hotel was damaged but no people were hurt. Licklider says, “The presence of the dogs alone is an enormous deterrent; they’re just not used to seeing protection or detection dogs over there. And these dogs do find weapons every day, and those weapons presumably would have been used.”

While his job in Iraq didn’t involve handling dogs, Kopelman says, “I saw up close what these dogs could do. I think we all appreciated and respected how they save lives.” As for Kopelman his next stop with his 6-month old pup is a dog training class, “As Van Zante says, “My friend Lt. Col. Kopelman may have rank, but try telling that to a 6-month old puppy.”