By KYM SOPER. Journal Inquirer of Manchester
MANCHESTER, Conn. (AP) _ When he came home from a 10-month deployment in Afghanistan, Sgt. Jason Halbach brought a friend _ a 5-month-old stray puppy named Bravo.
His wife, Victoria Halbach, said she was thrilled _ and happy to help in the monumental effort of getting “her two guys” stateside.
The four cats already living in the couple’s Manchester home weren’t as pleased, Jason Halbach said with a chuckle on a recent day, but they’re coming around.
Halbach, who had been stationed just south of Kabul in the Ghazni Province of Afghanistan, returned home June 5 with his unit, the 143rd National Guard Military Police, following a 22-hour flight to Bradley International Airport.
Bravo preceded him, setting off two months earlier and arriving at Bradley a few days before he did. That meant a first-time trip to a groomer for a proper bath and spa treatment so he could join the family and greet Halbach’s plane.
Bravo is a long way from the land of his birth, and not just in miles.
Halbach said the dog wandered onto the military base when he was about two months old and was nearly run over by a truck.
Another soldier noticed the tiny ball of fur seeking to sit in the shade of the parked truck tires and drove a Bobcat utility vehicle to block the truck from moving.
Strays are common in Afghanistan, where nomadic tribes breed them for guard dogs, herding and fighting.
It’s rare to see a stray dog on base, however, Halbach said, and especially uncommon to find an orphaned pup.
It’s also against military rules to keep one.
But Bravo quickly worked his way into the hearts of Halbach and the 28 soldiers living in his quarters.
At first they let him roam and scavenge, but before long the soldiers built him a shelter, secured on the other side of the base and would feed him what they had: scraps of beef jerky and Girl Scout cookies.
“He grew on everybody,” Halbach said. And for a time, the dog had at least five or six names, including Bobcat and Rufus, depending on who you talked to, he said.
Halbach gave him the tag 22 Bravo, in honor of his team and the dog’s early foster family.
The soldiers tried to keep their mascot secret, and there were several close calls, Halbach said, as Bravo “did his best to thwart all of our plans.”
Bravo once broke free and was found lounging on the team’s front porch minutes before a sergeant was due to arrive.
The soldiers quickly moved him before he was seen, and the subterfuge went on for about a month. But eventually the ruse was up and command gave the soldiers an ultimatum: the dog leaves or faces death.
Strays carry a risk of rabies, and there were two working military dogs on base to consider.
Halbach’s team scrambled and found a local Afghan truck driver who took the dog a mile down the road and set him free.
“We figured that was better and thought that was the last we’d seen of him, but the next morning, he wound up back on our stoop,” Halbach said with a laugh.
Tenacious and clever, Bravo had tracked his way back through the desert in the middle of the night, breached the security of armed guards, sand walls and wire fencing to find his favorite group of soldiers.
“We realized this wasn’t going to work and started figuring out who was going take him home,” he said.
Halbach, who planned to adopt a dog when he returned to Manchester, had Victoria’s blessing before he even asked.
Financing was a stumbling block, though. It can cost $3,500 to $4,500 to ship an animal from Afghanistan to the United States. Riding on military transport is not allowed.
So Halbach got in touch with the British charity Nowzad Dogs, which helps American, Australian and United Kingdom soldiers bring home Afghan and Iraqi animals they’ve fallen in love with while overseas.
Started by a now-retired Royal Marine, Sgt. Pen Farthing, the charity has a shelter in Kabul where the animals are quarantined for 30 days, receive all their shots and veterinary treatment and a microchip. When they meet all legal requirements, Nowzad gets them crated and on board a flight that’s met by family members.
The soldiers paid a local shopkeeper to make the three-hour drive to the shelter, and Bravo’s ticket home was paid for in nine days through donations to the charity website and Facebook pages, Halbach said.
Once in Kabul, Bravo got caught in red tape as the Afghan government put a hold on the import and export of animals and plants while it rewrote its laws to protect endangered species from being taken out of the country.
There were other delays, including the 11th hour rescheduling of his arrival time on June 3.
Victoria Halbach said that rather than go back home, she decided to wait the extra 45 minutes in the car with her mother at the airport area where animals are shipped.
“All of a sudden I heard this whimpering, and I got out and went to the gate and I could see his cage _ it was near the fence,” Victoria Halbach said, adding that she was expecting a much bigger dog. As soon as their eyes met, Bravo’s tail went into overdrive, she said.
“He’s so very loving,” Victoria Halbach said. “The first thing he did was roll over and ask for a belly rub. And then he turns into mush.”
While the journey was long and arduous, Bravo is showing few signs that it had any effect on him. His newfound joy: rolling in grass and chasing squirrels up a tree.
“He can’t seem to fathom how they get up there,” Jason Halbach chortled. Trees are few and far between in the sandy region where the base was located. The beach is what reminds him of home, he said.
Information from: Journal Inquirer, http://www.journalinquirer.com