Once among the thousands of dogs roaming Baghdad, a city that considers strays a menace, Sara eluded traps set by police and survived a car accident — albeit with a broken leg.
Lately, Sara has been spending her time in the company of a family in Bel Air, a dramatic change in fortunes brought about by a U.S. military contractor with a soft spot for neglected animals.
Andrew Leeson, a U.S. Navy veteran working as a private security contractor in Iraq, found Sara and named her. He fed her, hid her from the police, paid for surgery to right her front paw and made it his mission to find her a home in the U.S.
He connected with SPCA International and helped arrange Sara's flight from Baghdad to the U.S. When the pup landed at Washington Dulles International Airport, he knew he had finally rescued Sara. She now lives with his friends Margaret and Mark McLean.
"Sara is the best accomplishment of my tour," he said. "She lived life on cement and only discovered grass in her first week here. Sara now lives in the best place on earth."
The McLeans were empty-nesters and initially reluctant to take on a dog, let alone one from a war zone. But her story resonated with them and Leeson's prodding wore them down.
"She is just the best dog, a real delight," said Margaret McLean. "She adapted really well and quickly. The whole neighborhood loves Sara."
Leeson, a Miami native who moved to Baltimore last year, spent seven years in Iraq and tended to dozens of unwanted animals. Dogs' companionship helped him cope with time away from home and the dangers inherent in his job, he said.
"Our paths just crossed," said Leeson, 50. "These dogs were looking for an ally. I was looking for a friend. Dog care was therapy for me."
Leeson said he and other Americans in Iraq were disheartened to see traps set out to capture and later exterminate the uncontrolled population of the country's strays, often found roaming in packs and scrounging for survival. Leeson acknowledged that the dogs can become a health hazard.
"For them the job is protecting people, not protecting dogs," he said
Terri Crisp, program manager for Operation Baghdad Pups, a rescue effort by SPCA International, said many Americans who have traveled to Iraq have tried to alleviate "the suffering of these creatures who are just trying to survive." Many troops are under orders that limit what they can do to help strays.
In the four years since the rescue operation was launched, she has made 40 trips to Iraq and brought to America more than 300 dogs, about 80 cats and one donkey, airlifted at the behest of a Marine colonel.
"Saving an animal is the something good that comes out of an experience that can be traumatic," she said.
The group will return to Iraq next month and already seven dogs await transport.
"Not a single GI went to Iraq with the idea of disobeying orders about befriending local animals and bringing them back with them," said Crisp. "But this dog often showed up right when it was most needed and gave someone the comfort needed to get through a difficult situation. How could anyone abandon an animal that had done that for them?"
Like many of the American military and independent contractors working in Iraq, Leeson found himself feeding, grooming and administering what care he could to strays.
"I spent a fortune on dogs and was probably Pet Smart's best customer," he said. "Shipments to me were rarely less than $1,000. I bought nutrition products, meds, toys, even a big inflatable pool. They loved that on those 120-degree days."
He befriended many Iraqi children and tried to alter their attitude toward dogs. "I had treats for kids and treats for dogs," he said.
Eventually, he connected with Operation Baghdad Pups and began searching among his stateside friends for homes for the dogs. The pups program provides veterinary care and coordinates complicated logistics and transportation requirements in order to reunite pets with their service men and women back in the U.S. Airlifting a dog costs about $4,000, much of it for the security involved in retrieving an animal.
"It is not a simple task and often must be done in a convoy," Crisp said.
Of all those dozens of dogs he befriended, Leeson managed to airlift only three others beside Sara. Barty, one of her pups, lives on a Carroll County farm. Mr. Bear and Two Face, named for the different shades of her visage, have found homes in Washington, D.C.
"There was easily more than 100 dogs I tried to help, but I only have four success stories," he said.
The dog Two Face was supposed to move into an apartment in downtown Baltimore with Leeson and his wife Meredith. The couple, who met in Iraq and got engaged in a bunker, married at the city courthouse in July. Before he left Iraq, Leeson arranged for the dog's care and transport, which had to be delayed until cooler weather made the flight safe. In the months it took to bring the pup here, their landlord imposed a "no pets" regulation. Again, Leeson found adoptees among his friends.
"Andrew forwarded a picture of Two Face and it was love at first sight," said John Schenk, who now shares his D.C. home with the dog. "She took to doggie-domestic life immediately."