NEW YORK—In Afghanistan, a group of Americans heard shots. They went towards the sounds.
“When we got there, we saw a few Afghanis standing around something and firing at the ground,” said an elite special forces sergeant, in a statement. Because of his service, his identity must be concealed. “We could see an adult dog and figured that they were shooting the dog over and over again. When we got closer, we saw that the situation wasn’t what we expected. The corpse of a dog on the ground had a litter of puppies no more than a week old and they weren’t just shooting the mother but also shooting the pups.”
The men rescued two small orphans. “They had to bottle-feed them. These two puppies, they were helpless,” said Robert Misseri, founder and president of New York-based Guardians of Rescue. In his day job he runs a catering company.
The soldier named the puppies Rommel and Blitz, and raised them to adulthood at their base camp.
When they got orders to leave, they had to leave Rommel and Blitz behind.
“These animals heal their hearts,” said Misseri. “It softens them up … regardless of how trained they are.”
Military rules and logistics do not allow soldiers to take animals with them. When soldiers move out, they grab their gear and get into a helicopter, according to Misseri. But leaving a beloved animal behind is a crushing blow.
Week’s Worth of Food
“When we talk to veterans who can’t bring them back,” said Misseri, and paused. “They pack up, they leave a week’s worth of food.” They know the dogs will be in danger.
“They are bitter. The depression sets in. It’s really, really difficult for them,” said Misseri. “To have to leave an animal behind in a war-torn area” preys on the soldiers. They keep thinking about what might happen to the animal, knowing that they cannot protect a creature who protected and comforted and cared for them.
That he can relieve that burden makes him happy, said Misseri. “That’s very, very rewarding for me.”
He is not a veteran himself, he said, but he wanted to do something tangible for service members. On Wednesday, Rommel and Blitz will arrive in Raleigh, North Carolina, to be reunited with the unit that saved their lives. Guardians program veterans manager and U.S. Army veteran John Walis is escorting the pair.
Guardians worked with a network of partners. “You can’t get anything done without a network,” said Misseri.
Rommel was hit by a contractor’s truck and needed surgery for a shattered leg. A volunteer traveled to a remote place to pick up the canine brothers. Animal welfare charity Nowzad got Rommel veterinary care in Afghanistan.
From there, they flew to Dubai. Rachael’s Rescue in North Carolina worked to raise $10,000 for their care and transportation. They have not raised all the money yet. “We are a very fiscally responsible charity,” said Misseri. It posted a 2011 tax return on its website, showing that it is run entirely by volunteers, with no one drawing a salary. It’s too small to be rated by Charity Navigator. It only evaluates groups that raise $1 million or more each year. Guardians raises less than $100,000 each year and uses it to help animals and animal owners, with food, shelter, vet care, and transportation.
No Buddy Left Behind
“This is part of our No Buddy Left Behind Program,” stated Misseri. “Raising that kind of money isn’t easy, but helping our heroes and their four-legged battle buddies is the least we can do. After all, they sacrifice their lives for our freedom on a daily basis.”
He does it not only because he loves animals. He and his fellow volunteers do it to express gratitude to people in military service. “This is a way we can give back to the veterans,” said Misseri. “This is a small thing we can do for them.”
Once the volunteers become involved with a dog, they stay involved. People in the military don’t earn much money, according to Misseri. A soldier might be deployed while his wife is home with the dog and small children. She might need practical support. For example, the group is building a fence around the future house of Rommel. He is a big dog and needs a fenced yard. That’s the kind of tangible help his group gives, and “we always stay in their lives.”
Misseri’s life has an element of rescue in it. He has a past. He was allegedly connected to the Gambino crime family, and federal prosecutors accused him of serious crimes. He was not convicted, and the most serious charges were dropped, but he pleaded guilty to lesser charges and served time.
“I was not an altar boy,” said Misseri.
His problems with the law happened a long time ago.
He feels content “every day when I wake up, knowing I am helping someone else. You pick yourself up. You brush yourself off. I feel like I got a second chance in life.”
So did Rommel and Blitz, and the anonymous service members who bonded with them in Afghanistan.