Somewhere in Iraq today, a little yellow dog named Laia is starting the treacherous journey of a lifetime to the United States. She’s being saved thanks to Maj. Steven Hutchison, who adopted her, and SPCA International's Operation Baghdad Pups. But Hutchison himself won’t be part of the homecoming: He was killed by a roadside bomb May 10 outside Basra, just three months before he was supposed to return home to Scottsdale, Ariz. When she reaches the U.S., Laia will live with a friend's family instead.
Even among the heroic tales of sacrifice of the nearly 5,000 troops who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, Maj. Hutchison stands out. At 60, he was the oldest combat death in either conflict. He was a decorated Vietnam vet with a doctorate in psychology. The father of two grown daughters, he had wanted to rejoin the military after the Sept. 11 attacks, but listened to his wife, who didn’t want him to go. After she died of cancer in 2006, Hutchison re-enlisted, with tours in Afghanistan and Iraq as an adviser to Iraqi forces.
Hutchison's unit found Laia at just 1 month old in Basra. The local vet said he would have to euthanize the dog unless they adopted her as a mascot. As policy, soldiers are not supposed to adopt strays, and Hutchison defied orders to get rid of the dog, even moving her from base to base, his friend, Sgt. Andrew Hunt, told the SPCA. "He ignored this request several times up until it began to move toward punishment," Sgt. Hunt said. "See, you couldn't ever tell the Major he couldn't do something, he [was] a stubborn old goat set in his ways. It was an endearing quality we loved about him."
Long tours in Iraq have led many soldiers to adopt animals, SPCA International spokeswoman Stephanie Scroggs told PEOPLE Pets. "As soon as soldiers adopt a dog or a cat, it just seems very transformative in many of their lives," she said. That seems to have been the case with Hutchison, who let Laia sleep in his bed and ride in his lap. "Whenever Laia was around, his demeanor and personality changed 1000 percent," Hunt told the SPCA. "He was never without a smile, he was so much happier in life, it was amazing."
Hunt helped arrange Laia's transport home and his family will temporarily take care of the dog until she moves to Michigan to live with her new family, including two kids.
But first, Laia must complete the most difficult part of her journey: traveling to the Baghdad airport in the care of a contractor hired by SPCA International. Although the trip is only about 300 miles, it will take two days. Then Laia, now just under 1 year old, will join three other dogs on a flight to the United States with Operation Baghdad Pups program manager Terri Crisp, making Laia the 147th pet saved by the group.
Leaving Iraq for a new life—and escaping mass government-sponsored exterminations—is not an easy option for many of the dogs that soldiers befriend, and that's where Operation Baghdad Pups comes in. Earlier this year, in a case that touched people around the world,
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Gwen Beberg worked with the program—and fought the Army—to get her dog Ratchet out of Iraq. Right now, 50 soldiers are on the waiting list to move their pets out of the war zone, and each rescue can cost up to $4,000. The SPCA International is hoping for more donations to fund happy endings like Beberg's.
Maj. Hutchison's brother, Sgt. Richard Hutchison, told the SPCA that his brother always loved dogs and often talked about Laia in his phone calls. The rescue of Laia means so much to the family that Richard will meet the dog at Washington Dulles International Airport for her June 1 arrival.
"Laia has brought so much joy and happiness into our lives, and we cannot express how much she has touched us all," Hutchison told the SPCA. "As a final act for our brother, we want to send his dog home."
You can to help a soldier bring their pet home by visiting their .