Iraqi dogs a memento of late soldier
By Ken Thomas
By Ken Thomas
WASHINGTON — Growing up, Peter Neesley was an animal lover who always took in strays around his Michigan home. So when his family heard that the Army sergeant was taking care of two dogs outside his Baghdad military base, no one was surprised.
In e-mails and phone calls from Iraq, Neesley talked about how he came across Mama, a black Labrador mix, and Boris, her white- and brown-spotted puppy, while on patrol in their Baghdad neighborhood.
One of Mama's puppies was later killed by a car, so Neesley and his friends built a doghouse to shelter the animals. Photographs show Neesley feeding the dogs and kneeling next to the red-and-white doghouse and Boris walking along the cracked sidewalks of Baghdad.
"He was determined. He had already been sending us e-mails about how when he came home in July, he was going to find a way to bring them with him," said his sister, Carey Neesley.
Neesley's family was devastated when they learned Christmas morning that the 28-year-old had died in his sleep. The Army said his death is under investigation pending an autopsy.
Still grieving, the family decided that they would honor Neesley's wishes and try to bring the dogs home to Michigan.
"To have something that they can hold and touch and care for that Peter cared about, that's the whole thing," said Julie Dean, his aunt.
Mama and Boris arrived Feb. 8 at Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich., home of Neesley's mother, capping a four-week transfer facilitated by family members, animal rights groups, media outlets and elected leaders.
Dean said her sister had been running around, making sure the house was clean in preparation for the dogs' arrival.
"This is so awesome," cried Carey Neesley, as she knelt on the wet street to embrace Mama.
The dogs were picked up in Baghdad by Rich Crook, a rapid response manager for the Utah-based Best Friends Animal Society, which helped arrange the animals' transport after learning about them from media reports. Gryphon Holdings LLC, an American-owned airline with service to Iraq, agreed to fly the dogs from Baghdad to Kuwait City.
While Neesley's fellow soldiers cared for Mama and Boris, a veterinarian with the Iraqi Society for Animals vaccinated the dogs and arranged for the health certificates allowing them to travel to the United States.
When Crook and the dogs cleared customs at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, they were greeted by Justin Harlem, an aide to Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who brought the dogs treats and toys.
"I think the animals are part of Peter now in the eyes of the family," Crook said.
Carey Neesley said her brother decided to re-enlist in the Army in 2005 after learning that one of his friends was killed in Iraq, leaving behind a wife and two children. Protecting others was part of his life, she said.
"He didn't want another young man who had a wife and kids at home to die," she said. "He's always had such a strong sense of family and protecting those who can't protect themselves. Caring for a mother and her stray puppy, why would you ever think to do anything else?"