October 2006

Colleen Mondor

nonfiction

From Baghdad, With Love: A Marine, the War, and a Dog Named Lava by Jay Kopelman with Melinda Roth

One of the books hyped at Book Expo caught my attention: Jay Kopelman's From Baghdad, With Love: A Marine, the War, and a Dog Named Lava. I ended up doing something I rarely do anymore -- I read the book through, start to finish, in one afternoon. Even though I knew from the beginning that Lava was going to make it -- there are pictures of him as an adult dog in California -- the story of how Kopelman got this puppy out of Iraq was so different from anything I have read anywhere about the war in Iraq that I was on the edge of my seat from start to finish. Beyond the heartwarming dog story, however, there is a most impressive book about war here. Kopelman pulls no punches and even though he is still on active duty.

General Order 1-A is taken pretty seriously by the military. No pets allowed. That’s because they’ve invested a lot of time and money into trashing your moral clarity, and they don’t want anything like compassion messing things up. Your job is to shoot the enemy, period, and if anything close to compassion rears its ugly head, you better shoot that down, too, or you’re in some deep, scary shit.

This would make sense if we were fighting a conventional war, but that is most certainly not the case and might never be again. We are “fighting insurgents” and “embarking on nation-building” and “bringing democracy to the people of embattled regions.” In other words, some days we kill folks and some days we save them. In the middle of all of this, in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries where US troops are deployed, there are a lot of stray cats and dogs (and other animals) because as the civilian population flees, animals get left behind. (Look no further than New Orleans for proof of that.) Some troops find them easy to kill, others practice strict habits of ignoring them, but all too often, some fall in love. In one specific instance, that is what happened to Kopelman and the members of the First Battalion, Third Marines, the “Lava Dogs,” as well as several other Marines, Iraqi civilians, the Helen Woodward Animal Center in San Diego, Vohne Liche Kennels, and Triple Canopy Security, and one NPR journalist, Anne Garrels.

I will confess that I had no idea that so many service members have wanted to bring animals back from war zones, but I can see the natural instinct to feed a starving puppy or kitten if the situation presents itself. I can also see how in a strange place, witnessing inhuman and horrifying events, having a dog to go back to might be the difference between sanity and eternal fucked-uppedness for a lot of them. That’s the thing we always seem to forget when we send people off to war – eventually, some of them will be coming back home.

Whether or not they can return to civilian life effectively depends a lot on what happens to them when they are away. Call it shell shock, combat fatigue, or post traumatic stress syndrome, but the ability of a soldier to separate their experiences in uniform from their new life as a civilian is critical to society. But consider the edge these people have been living on: “The enemy dangles soda cans from trees and packs explosives into road-kill. They hide bombs in girders, vegetated highway dividers, guardrails, trash cans and manholes. They bury bombs in underground tunnels. They drop bombs from bridges.” There is even a case of a cow being turned into a suicide bomber, a donkey getting blown up at a checkpoint and dogs being rigged with explosives and set loose among potential victims.

What it comes down to then, for Kopelman and a lot of other Marines and soldiers, is the desire to find sanity anyplace they can, and a puppy seems a likely choice. The military is not easy on animals, though, not even the ones they enlist themselves. Working dogs in the Marines are faced with a sad review at the end of their service career. When they are too old to deploy (usually around ten years), they go before a medical board, and unless they are proven not to be a threat to civilians and can be adopted by someone who understands the risks involved, then they are let go. “Most of them… are deemed non-adoptable,” writes Kopelman. “These are the dogs whose entire lives centered on carrying orders to perfection, who were so devoted to the military, they obeyed to the death. These were the most faithful, dependable, patriotic dogs of the lot, so they’re handed ‘final disposition’ papers and euthanized.”

For Kopelman all of it, every single bad, crazy, complicated, stupid thing about this war comes down to this one specific dog and what he has to do to get him out. Dogs have to have a veterinarian’s certificate and vaccinations to be transported out of Iraq, but the military vets will not even look at civilian dogs and finding an Iraqi vet in the midst of war-time chaos is not so easy. As Kopelman explains, trying to get proper documentation for anyone, let alone a puppy is nearly impossible:

This is in part because in our rush to hand out private contracts for Iraq’s reconstruction, oversight was shoveled away with just about everything else including sanity. The United States secretly awarded reconstruction projects, and US contractors earned excessive profits in part by subcontracting work to cheaper Iraqi companies, inflating charges, jimmying invoices, and welcoming kickbacks with bear hugs. They created shell companies in the Cayman Islands that falsely billed the US government. They paid ghost employees. They overpriced furniture contracts with kickbacks built right in and billed the government for products that were never delivered.

On the Iraqis’ side, public servants supplied salesmen and consumers with stolen medicine and medical equipment. Iraqi ministry officials pocketed millions in reconstruction money. Housing officials took bribes to allocate homes.

Kopelman is determined: “…I really like what I am -- a Marine. I like being strong. I like being brave. I like going in first. I want to go in first, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let anyone shoot my puppy.”

I couldn’t help thinking when I was reading this book that if it was this hard to get one puppy sent back to the U.S., then trying to open schools and get hospitals running must seem like finding a cure for cancer. Even as hard as Kopelman works there is still an element of luck involved that he cannot control. At one point, he recounts the story of another soldier who was waiting to load his dog onboard an aircraft for the first leg of the journey home when he was shot in his arms. A civilian contractor was adhering to General Order 1-A even if this soldier was not.

In the end, Kopelman is successful and Lava gets back to California where he settles in just fine, albeit with a few behavioral problems that linger from his upbringing. “Lava has been through several obedience classes,” writes Kopelman, “and is making progress but has yet to graduate from one. That’s okay, though. I’m pretty much in the same boat in more ways than one, and we keep each other company as things straighten out.”

As the media picked up on Lava’s story there was one question Kopelman was asked many times – why did getting this dog out of Iraq matter so much? It was a question that could have been posed to any one of a hundred (or thousand) different soldiers, all of whom were working to save their own newly discovered pets. Although Lava’s tale was heartwarming it still made little sense to many Americans and even if Kopelman has done an excellent job of explaining how he accomplished his rescue it is not until the last line of the book that he makes it clear just why he had had to do this; why it was critical that Lava got out.

“Why wasn’t my time spent helping people instead of a puppy?” asks Kopelman. “I don’t know and I don’t care, but at least I saved something.”

Lava was born in Iraq, nearly died in his first few weeks on the streets of Fallujah and now he lives in LaJolla, California. He lives and seeing him everyday, Jay Kopelman knows that he lives only because he saved him, he did what it took to get that dog to safety. And maybe that doesn’t seem like enough in the grand scheme of all of Iraq’s chaos but on the balance sheet for Jay Kopelman’s life, it is everything. We all do nothing everyday; how often do we do what it takes to save a life that desperately needs us? And why is it so wrong that a U.S. Marine would want to go out of his way for a dog (or cat or whatever). Why can’t we let them save an animal that in the long run is surely going to serve to save them right back?

Jay Kopelman saved a dog named Lava and everyday since, Lava has saved him too. It’s the kind of story that happens all the time but no one ever hears; it’s a war story like no other and I defy you to read this book without caring just a little more about the world around you. From Baghdad, With Love is not about the why of the Iraq War or when or how. It is about a man and a dog and in being that small of a story, it manages to tell us something about war on a scale we rarely see; it manages to tell us not why we fight but how we come home. This is a story about coming home.

And when all is said and done, that’s the only thing that matters. In all of this, in spite of this, coming home is still the only thing that matters.

From Baghdad, With Love: A Marine, the War, and a Dog Named Lava by Jay Kopelman with Melinda Roth
The Lyons Press
ISBN 1592289800
224 pages