The Iraqi dogs of war

When Lieutenant Colonel Jay Kopelman first met Lava, he reached for his rifle.

Lava was just a puppy, bouncing up and down and barking in excitement. But he was doing it in a war zone, where unexpected noises mean danger.

Lava had caught the attention of members of the First Battalion, Third Marines, who were patrolling an abandoned house in Fallujah, Iraq in November 2004. The date is significant, because the Battle of Fallujah will go down as one of the bloodiest American engagements since the Vietnam War. That meant Lava was a puppy in a very bad place.

But Kopelman put the rifle down, and Lava lived to bark another day.

General Order 1-A

Today, Kopelman and Lava live in California, a long way from the relentless dangers of Iraq. As Kopelman talks down the phone, Lava can be heard barking in the background. He’s one lucky animal, because he came very close to ending up like most of the dogs in Iraq: shot by a solider, killed in an explosion, or left to roam the streets. Instead, the war-weary Marines—known as the Lava Dogs—scooped him up and proceeded to spoil him rotten.

“In a war situation, Lava and other dogs give you a real sense of home,” says Kopelman. “They give you that sense of normalcy that you don’t get from anything else, not from an email or a care package. They’re a great sense of comfort.”

Pretty soon the soldiers were feeding Lava their pre-packaged meals, consoling him with baby talk, and generally letting him get away with anything the puppy felt like doing. Lava and Kopelman bonded particularly strongly, each adopting the other.

Lava still wasn’t out of danger, though, because American forces are forbidden to adopt animals under General Order 1-A. “The Order is much broader than just having pets or mascots,” says Kopelman. “It can cover anything from the correct way to enter a mosque to not drinking in a country where drinking is not allowed.”

The Order is strictly enforced. Marines who adopt puppies thinking they’re being kind can end up seeing their dog shot in front of them. “Pets can become a distraction,” says Kopelman. “They could give away your position or they could carry disease. If they give the force a disease, it won’t matter how good your technology is. If there aren’t people to use it, then it’s not worth anything.”

There’s another issue: pets can make soldiers feel too normal, which interferes with their ability to kill. “In a combat situation, you can’t afford to become too compassionate,” says Kopelman. “I don’t want to make it sound as though the Marines aren’t compassionate, because we are. We have a long history of taking care of people and taking on the playground bully. It’s just that you don’t want the confusion and certainly not the distraction.”

Lava turned out to be a huge distraction. Kopelman was in Iraq to train Iraqi soldiers, and he was determined to take Lava with him when he left. But it wasn’t easy, because Iraq’s borders were sealed. Even if animals could be smuggled out of the country, they required veterinary certificates to get into other countries. But the vets who could write them had all fled.

“If they’re lucky, the dogs are kept alive and just kind of passed from one unit to the next, so they’re taken care of,” says Kopelman. “But it doesn’t always happen. A lot of times they are put down.”

Although Kopelman found support from many unexpected quarters, both American and Iraqi, the attempt to get Lava out of Iraq meant months of waiting and even danger. “At times it was very stressful,” he says. “But I couldn’t worry about it all the time, because I had a job to do.”

Eventually Lava made it to the States, but only after many hair-raising adventures, involving a cast of characters as varied as a journalist living in the terrifying Red Zone, to an Iraqi who had to overcome his culture’s deep dislike of dogs, to a handler of bomb-detector dogs. Kopelman chooses his words carefully when he talks about Iraq. “You can’t believe everything you read,” he says. “But I think it’s worse than what’s written about.”

One love affair leads to another

Kopelman wants it known that he’s immensely proud of his time in the Marines (amphibious fighting forces). Ask him any question and he immediately launches into military history, adding, “I joined the Marine corps for the leadership, the camaraderie and the esprit de corps.”

He retired from the Marines after he came home, and devoted his spare time to writing From Baghdad, With Love, about his adventures with Lava. It’s a fast-paced, tough read that weaves a number of dog stories through the narrative: the litter of puppies condemned to death; the desert dogs who have organised themselves into a disciplined pack; and the left-behind strays who rely on the regular supply of dead humans for their food. It’s war reportage of a different sort that illuminates just how intense the bond is between human and animals, especially in extreme circumstances.

Now that it’s finished, Kopelman’s not sure what he’ll do next. “I’d like to see if there is a small to medium sized non-profit that needs a director, or a company that’s socially and environmentally aware,” he says.

As for Lava, he’s doing well, though Kopelman says he remains a desert dog at heart, showing no interest in swimming in the nearby ocean. He also shows some signs of war trauma. “He’s hyper protective and actually really rather nervous,” says Kopelman. Lava will react strongly to sudden noises, and dislikes strangers. This isn’t always a bad thing, like the time Lava decided he didn’t like an eight-year-old boy he saw playing in the park.

“We were up at the park last June when Lava grabbed Sean, in a playful way,” says Kopelman. “Sean’s mother yelled ‘your dog bit my son’ and I went over.”

One thing led to another, and now Kopelman is married to Pam, the boy’s mother. Lava sleeps on Sean’s bed, plays with Pam’s dog Koda, and suffers under the stern rule of Cheddar the cat. But Kopelman is acutely aware that there are plenty of other war dogs out there, attached to other soldiers craving a piece of normality in their lives. He’s currently working with the Humane Society to try and get military regulations around pets and mascots relaxed. “I get emailed [from Iraq] on a fairly regular basis from someone who’s found an animal, asking if I can help get it back,” he admits. “Thus far it’s ‘no’. We were just very lucky with Lava.”

Lava, he believes, is the luckiest dog in the world.

Felicity Carter

This article first appeared in Bark! magazine. I think it was 2006.