NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — After five long months apart, a veteran has been reunited with a pup he met while working as a civilian contractor in a remote desert military location in Syria.
“She was just probably born in the desert and happened to make her way to where we were stationed,” said Mike Richardson, who has spent 30 years in the military serving in the Marines, then Arizona Army National Guard and currently the reserves.
It was the first dog they had seen in the area.
“She was just the cutest, like smallest, maybe about two-month-old puppy, and she had the same big eyes she has now, and she looks at you and you immediately know ‘oh, we’re gonna take care of this puppy.'”
She showed up at the base alone; no other dog in sight.
After some debate, they decided to name her Syri, and she quickly became everyone’s dog – a positive influence for all those on base.
“When you’re deployed in that environment, when you just have one little thing, just a little puppy, just looking at you like you want to do everything you can to take care of her,” he said.
They took turns feeding her, walking her, playing with her, training her and just caring for her.
“Right away, we knew that somebody was going to take this puppy home.” While other soldiers did want to adopt Syri, Richardson said, after considering the commitment of having a pet, he decided to make her a part of his forever home. “When you really stop and think about it it’s a big commitment… you have to think of the next 15 plus years.”
Once he made the decision to adopt Syri, he then had to figure out how to get her back to the United States.
“Luckily just the stars aligned,” Richardson said. With the help of other soldiers, he was able to find a pilot that could fly Syri from Syria to Iraq.
That’s when the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals International (SPCAI) came into the picture.
“We’re not an adoption agency per say. We run various programs around the world to reduce the suffering of animals by way of humane education, spaying and neutering,” said Lori Kalef, Director of Programs for SPCA International.
Kalef said SPCAI started helping military service members adopt animals from war-torn areas around the world in 2008 with its Operation Baghdad Pups: Worldwide program.
Kalef said a soldier stationed in Iraq had befriended a dog named Charlie, and the dog “elevated the moral on base.” That soldier couldn’t bear to leave the dog behind.
“He just researched international organizations that work with animals around the world and he contacted us,” she continued. “This is something we never did before, but one thing about us is that we never say never.”
From there word of mouth spread, Kalef said. SPCAI has been able to help more and more soldiers bring home dogs and cats from around the world.
“They contact us when a dog or cat walks into their life, and we figure out all the logistics of being able to bring them back home so they can start their forever lives together,” Kalef explained.
It’s not as simple as putting an animal on a plane, especially when you consider the CDC banned more than 100 countries, including Syria, from importing dogs due to the high risk of rabies.
“There are a lot of hoops to jump through, and we always adhere to the importing and exporting governing laws of both countries,” Kalef said. “There was never going to be a question of if; it just took a lot longer.”
However, that ban has eased up since then, which has sped up the process of transporting animals from international countries to the U.S.
For Richardson, that was welcomed news.
“They flew her from Iraq, stopped over in Germany, from Germany to JFK,” he added, “From JFK she had a vet visit, and then they put her in a transport and drove her from JFK down here to Georgia, and when she got out of the van, she was just wiggling.”
In all, it was about five months of separation for Richardson and Syri, which he was originally told it could take up to one year.
Syri arrived at her new home in Georgia a few weeks ago, no longer 25lbs. but 55lbs.
“She’s just the same, just bigger,” Richardson said with a smile. “She’s a really long dog, and she just wiggles, and and she’s just so cute when she gets excited.”
Syri has adjusted well to her new forever family, even becoming friends with the family’s cats.
“She’s just like cool with anything,” he bragged.
Eight other dogs and cats were also rescued around the same time as Syri, Richardson said.
“You know soldiers still call me today and ask about Syri, and I mean, I’m still in a group chat with all the guys that are saving animals and everybody is always asking for advice and updates,” he said.
SPCAI has rescued more than 1,200 and counting furry friends with service members to date.
“This program operates by the kind donations from our wonderful supporters around the world to be able to make this happen,” Kalef said.
Richardson believes more can be done to save the animals. He even hopes the military reconsiders the blanket ban on their no animal policy, “no pets in country while deployed,” recommending they partner with the SPCAI or other animal rescue organizations in the future.
“I wish the military would take a closer look at the benefits these animals provide… the mental health aspect alone – some guy could have a terrible day, and he walks by and sees little Syri laying there tearing up a water bottle or running around like crazy, and they all just stop and watch her and play with her, even it’s just like three or four seconds, but then they walk away smiling,” Richardson said.
If you’re interested in learning more about SPCA operations in Tennessee, click this link.