American Dog Rescue program rescues dogs from Afghanistan, reunites them with U.S. soldiers

At this time of year, when many people are in desperate financial straits, it's appropriate to ask why anyone would squander $4,000 to bring a mutt from Afghanistan to the United States.

Well, Sheila Schaffer is more than happy to take on that question. A veteran of the Army National Guard, she is fierce in her defense of Charlie, her beloved mutt from Afghanistan.

Charlie is barking in the background as Schaffer speaks on the phone from her home in Iowa.

"People always say, 'Why are you saving those dogs when there are all these dogs here that need rescue?' People ask, 'Have they done anything heroic?' " said Schaffer, 43.

"And I always get angry. Heroic is not always saving someone from a bomb. Heroic is saving our souls, our spirits."

The idea of rescuing dogs from Afghanistan came from a British marine who could not bear to be separated from the dog he befriended there, named Nowzad for a nearby town.

That marine, Pen Farthing, met Delray Beach businessman Arthur Benjamin, founder of American Dog Rescue, at a Humane Society banquet in New York.

"I said I would cover 10 dogs," Benjamin said. "Then I called some people I know in Dallas. They pulled out all the stops to have a reunion at JFK (International Airport in New York)

"It was really wonderful. Every one of those soldiers cried, even one that was 280 pounds of muscle. Some of them have been apart a year and they don't have $4,000 to bring back a dog."

Founded in 2004, American Dog Rescue has raised nearly $2.3 million with a goal of becoming self-sustaining. Benjamin launched a matchup program for shelter dogs and seniors in Salt Lake City, which has dropped the kill rate at shelters there to almost zero. He hopes to start a buddy program for veterans and dogs next year.

Benjamin, who specializes in marketing ideas, talked American Airlines into paying the bill for transporting 14 dogs and a cat, all of whom would be claimed by a soldier returned to the United States.

Benjamin cajoled friends into further subsidizing the cost of veterinary care and quarantine. In all, it costs about $4,000 to get a dog to this country.

Formed in 2007, Farthing's Nowzad nonprofit cares for abused dogs, cats and donkeys in Afghanistan. Farthing, who rescued his dog from an organized dog fight, estimates that Nowzad has reunited about 250 dogs with soldiers in the United States and other nations, with help from American Dog Rescue and a patchwork of benefactors, and built what may be the only animal shelter in Afghanistan.

Charlie's mom, Delta, slipped under the fence at Sheila Schaffer's base last year. She had a rope embedded in her neck, bald spots and an injured leg. Medics patched her up. Soon after, she delivered seven puppies. Soldiers are prohibited from keeping pets on base, so Schaffer was threatened with having her pay withheld.

In less than a year in Afghanistan, Schaffer lost four good friends in one bombing, and nine more comrades after that. So she was not about to give up the dogs.

"I told my commander, 'Ma'am, if they want to punish me for acting humane, go ahead and take my pay.' She said, 'Don't tell me where they are. Just get them out of here.' "

The soldiers paid a man with a battered station wagon to transport the dogs from the base to Kabul. From there, they were flown to Dubai and on to the United States.

"The day they left, everybody said, 'Where's the puppies?' " Schaffer said. "That whole week, everybody's heads were hanging. They had nothing to look forward to."

Delta, Charlie's mother, had her own version of post-traumatic stress disorder when she went to live with Schaffer's mother in Arkansas, shivering and cowering for weeks. But she too is adjusting and is putting on weight.

Schaffer remembers more than one soldier who told her that there were days in Afghanistan when those mutts were the only thing standing between them and suicide.

"When you're missing your family, they're soft, they're cuddly and they appreciate you. Every day they're with us is a good day," Schaffer said.

Staff researcher Niels Heimeriks contributed to this story.

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