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When our 11-year-old border collie, Cowboy, was hit by a car in front of our house last winter, my husband, Jake, was devastated. To say they were inseparable isn't an exaggeration. In fact, the day I met Jake nine years ago was the same day I met Cowboy. Jake didn't have much time to grieve, though. Just a few weeks later he was on a plane bound for Kandahar -- one of the most dangerous provinces in Afghanistan -- to serve a year-long deployment as an army reservist.
Even as Jake immersed himself in his new role as a logistics officer and adviser to officers in the Afghan National Army, he knew he hadn't fully processed Cowboy's death. But in such a brutal environment, where every Afghan dressed in lumpy robes could be a potential bomb threat, Jake had to focus on survival. "It still hurts to think that Cowboy is gone," he admitted. "I barely feel like myself without him."
A couple of months into his deployment, an Afghan interpreter stopped by the base on his way to Kandahar City. The man asked Jake if he could get him anything while he was there. Half-jokingly, Jake said, "Yeah, get me a dog."
The interpreter took him seriously. He returned a few hours later cradling in his arms an adorable white puppy with caramel spots. The man didn't explain how he got her and Jake didn't press for details -- a good policy in Afghanistan -- but she was most likely a stray. In a country where resources are scarce, dogs are considered vermin, not pets. It's not unusual to see large packs of feral dogs rooting through garbage. People throw rocks at them.
The soldiers named her Solha, which means "peace" in Dari, one of Afghanistan's official languages. Jake bonded with her immediately. For a wild dog, Solha turned out to be gentle and lovable. She was scrappy, too -- and a talented escape artist. After Solha broke out of her enclosure for the third time, Jake built her a doghouse and a deluxe pen. On his days off he taught her commands and played fetch with her. He even started leash-training her by taking her on morning jogs around the base. I knew every detail of their adventures because Jake sent regular updates with photos: Solha licking his face, riding in the passenger seat of his Humvee, nipping at soldiers' boots when she wanted them to play with her.
Solha lived up to her name perfectly. I knew Jake felt more at peace with her by his side. He's always said he is calmer and more focused when he's around animals. Whenever I'd worry about him, I'd think, At least he has Solha. And she gave me something I desperately needed: a way to share a little of Jake's experience in Afghanistan. Because of the security risk, Jake couldn't tell me anything specific about what he was doing over there. Even if he could, how would I relate to life in a war zone? I couldn't even begin to comprehend it. Solha gave us common ground.
Then one morning Jake awoke to find Solha semiconscious, her legs and paws swollen and bloody. She'd been attacked by a pit viper that had slithered into her pen during the night. Frantic, Jake asked one of his fellow reservists, a veterinarian, if there was anything he could do to save Solha. The vet gave her IV fluids, steroids, and antibiotics, but Solha's little body struggled to fight the venom.
As Jake watched over her, the emotions he'd been forced to bottle up after Cowboy's death began to emerge. He wrote to me about the unpredictability of life, of never being promised tomorrow. But instead of wallowing, he said he was determined to fight on. Moments like these, he wrote, "are a reminder to cherish each day as if it is our last."
Miraculously, Solha kept fighting too. Thanks to the medication -- and the meat and Gatorade the soldiers swiped for her from the mess hall -- she began to come around. Jake was so grateful he became determined to find a way to bring Solha home with him even though it's against military policy. When a fellow officer told him about Nowzad, a charity that rescues stray and abandoned animals in Afghanistan and Iraq, he contacted them right away. The volunteers said they could make room for Solha in their shelter and get her to the United States. Transporting her would cost us $3,000. We didn't have that kind of money. But at the same time, it seemed like a small price to pay. This little stray had done so much for us. I wanted to return the favor by giving her a great life on our farm in Virginia. Jake and I didn't want to think about what would happen to her once his team was gone.
Maybe, I thought, I could ask for donations on my blog, Rurally Screwed. Readers posted such touching and supportive comments every time I wrote about Jake and Solha. I decided to host an e-fundraiser, hoping I'd collect enough money in a month or so. I raised more than $2,800 in a day and a half. I was blown away by people's generosity and compassion. Most of the money came from complete strangers.
The night before Solha was slated to fly to Nowzad's shelter -- just when it seemed like a happy ending was in sight -- she escaped from her pen. Jake was so upset he could barely break the terrible news to me. "Please say a prayer that I find her," he said. Three days later guards spotted Solha huddling behind a mess of tangled razor wire. She was alive -- but barely. Her skin was covered with gashes and blood, likely the result of a feral dog attack. Fortunately, the vet came to her rescue yet again, and she was well enough to make the trip to Nowzad the following week. A month later I drove to the airport to pick up the newest member of our family. She arrived just two days before her best buddy, Jake, came home.
Solha's transition to life on our farm hasn't exactly been seamless. In Afghanistan, all she had known was dirt, sand, diesel, and dudes. She had no idea what to make of our 2-year-old daughter, June, though she did enjoy stealing June's sippy cup and crackers. (June was not amused.) But Solha, for all her rambunctiousness, is a really sweet dog. And every time Jake and I look at her, we're reminded again that she's part of the reason we remained so close, even with 7,000 miles between us.
Jessie Knadler is very proud to report that Solha is such a good girl now that the two are able to go jogging together -- no leash required. Knadler is the author of the autobiography Rurally Screwed.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2012.