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On Veteran's Day, Honoring Soldiers by Helping Their Pets


On Veteran's Day, Honoring Soldiers by Helping Their Pets

Randy, , pictured with his two dogs, Buster and Little Girl. Guardian Angels for Soldiers' Pets arranged for a foster situation for the dogs, and here Randy is shown picking them up following his 18-month deployment in Iraq.

By Amy Lieberman
Veteran's Day occurs only once a year, but for some Americans, it's just another Wednesday, spent honoring soldiers' sacrifices with an irreplaceable gift: the knowledge that when they return home, their pets will be there waiting for them.

NetPets, a non-profit based in Myrtle Beach, S.C., has arranged foster homes for 12,000 military pets since 2001, through its perpetual program, MilitaryPets Foster Project. Recommended by the U.S. military and recognized by the U.S. Department of Defense as their "pet assistance provider," NetPet is only one of the "match-making" groups out there for military pet owners stationed abroad, but its network is one of the largest.

They have willing pet foster parents - almost always complete strangers, willing to take an animal for up to 16 months - in all 50 states, in addition to South Korea, Japan, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Spain and other nations.

"What we do is, we make the matches," explained Steve Albin, founder of NetPet. "You fill out your online form, and we locate a foster home closest to your residence, finding one that fits your and your pet's needs. You bring your pet to the foster home for a visit. If everyone gets along, it's a match."

Sounds simple enough, but Albin says he logs around 100 hours online each week, arranging temporary homes for dogs, cats, birds, snakes, goats, and some small exotics, "from chinchillas right down to hermit crabs." There's even been one pot-bellied pig thrown into the mix.

Albin launched his project on September 13, 2001; he says that at the time, "I didn't know what I was getting myself into," and never anticipated as great a need for the program as there has proven to be.

Soldiers' deep attachments to their pets back home came as no surprise to Linda Spurlin-Dominik, founder of Guardian Angels for Soldiers' Pets, a comparable foster organization headquartered in Hot Springs, Ark.

"It's a morale thing; here are single standing soldiers, and for a lot of them, their primary companions are their pets," she said to ZooToo Pet News. They get deployment orders, and have to put their stuff in storage, and then they realize, 'My God, what am I going to do with Rover?"

"I think people are really just glad we are here and that somebody thought of doing this," Spurlin-Dominik went on. "There are organizations that are supporting troops in lots of different ways, taking care of the wounded and supporting children of soldiers, but we are making sure that the pets aren't forgotten about, either."

Indeed, when pet owners serving in the military abroad lack access support systems like Guardian Angels, difficult, sometimes insurmountable situations, materialize. And the pets normally suffer.

Spurlin-Dominik recalled in 2005, when 4,000 troops were suddenly deployed from Fort Rucker base in Alabama; animal control officers picked up 400 pets that had "been left in yards or just roaming the streets," she said. At least 300 of the animals were re-homed, but around 100 of them wound up being euthanized, since "they didn't have anyone there who could have taken them."

Spurlin-Dominik and a friend soon after took note of a departing soldier who advertised through Soldiers' Guardian Angels, a volunteer group devoted to aiding soldiers and veterans, asking for help with caring for her dog.

She was poised to help arrange for the dog to cross from Ohio to Arkansas, where a willing volunteer had stepped forward, but radio station coverage of the story prompted a local from Ohio to offer up her home, instead.

"It was wonderful," Spurlin-Dominik, whose father, late husband and cousins have all served in the military, said. "Mission accomplished."

"After that, we started doing some research and we just found where the different locations are, where there is a major deployment, and how many animals had to get left behind or abandoned, needlessly."

Her organization has helped find 900 military pets foster homes, to date; 90 pets are presently being fostered across the country, though 75 more animals of soldiers are still waiting to find temporary homes.

Both NetPets and Guardian Angels say they are always looking for more foster homes and donations, though soldiers do generally cover their animals' basic costs.

Other organizations, like Canine Corps, based in central Pennsylvania, provide an in-house boarding solution for soldiers left-behind pets. Foster projects; however, appear to be the more popular solution.

The U.S. military has become increasingly accommodating to soldiers and their pets since 2002, according to Albin. Prior to April 2002, all pets belonging to people in the military were classified as "household possessions." Now, however, they are considered as part of the family, allowing them to live at military bases in the U.S. or in neutral territories.

Yet Iraq and Afghanistan, hardly classified as neutral territories, are no places for domestic dogs, cats and other critters to romp. Knowing that their animals will have a safe, comfortable place to call their temporary home helps soldiers deal with the difficult transition of being stationed abroad in a war-zone, Albin said.

"It's amazing to see and talk to these soldiers when they come home and are reunited with their pets," Albin said. "Some of them get quite emotional and we see how important programs like this really are."

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