It's all in a days work in Kandahar, Afghanistan for a reservist and his dog.
A journey of 7,000 miles
by Margaret Tearman
‘Dogs have a way of finding the people who need them, filling an emptiness we don’t even know we have.’
The arid landscape of Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province is a far cry from the lush banks of the Magothy River. American soldiers sent to this foreign land find few reminders of home and family and little affection. The locals offer tentative smiles. But the smiles of strangers fail to fill homesick hearts. In such a place, a dog can work miracles.
Far From Home
Mark Feffer, a United States Navy Reservist, arrived in Afghanistan in December, 2005. He was a long way from his home and his wife, Alice in Cape St. Clair.
After two weeks training in Kabul, Feffer traveled 300 miles to what would become his home away from home for six months, Camp Shirzai in Kandahar. The American operation was housed in a small compound on the Afghanistan military base.
That’s where Cinnamon’s story began.
“I was walking to the American section when this little puppy, no more than four months old, ran out from under a building. She wanted to play and had this big smile on her face,” Feffer recalled.
She was, Feffer learned, the camp dog, brought there by another American solider.
“The daily tempo in Afghanistan is very high,” Feffer told Bay Weekly. “When you spend five minutes with a dog, you forget it all.”
Sailor and dog soon bonded: “Cinnamon gave me a sense of home.”
The Journey Begins
Mark wasn’t the only Feffer falling for Cinnamon.
“I fell in love with Cinnamon,” said his wife, Alice. “Just from pictures, I saw she was special.” Alice planted the idea of adoption.
“I resisted,” says Feffer. “Cinnamon belonged to everyone on base.”
He only agreed to adopt when he realized he couldn’t leave the pup behind. That decision was the easy part; getting Cinnamon home to Maryland was another story.
“I asked a security dog handler how they got their dogs back and forth,” said Feffer. As luck would have it, the handler was returning to the States on leave and volunteered to take Cinnamon with him.
Feffer started on the paperwork and immunizations Cinnamon would need.
A month later, she was ready to go. But when Feffer tried to contact the volunteer escort, he learned the handler had been transferred.
Another month passed before a second handler agreed to escort Cinnamon to the States.
“The day before the scheduled departure, I brought Cinnamon to this handler,” says Feffer. “He was surprised to see she wasn’t a little puppy but still agreed.”
In hindsight, Feffer recalls the first sign of trouble. The handler wondered what he should do with the dog in case of a problem.
“Do whatever you need to do,” Feffer said. “Just don’t leave her somewhere.”
“The real immediate problem in my mind was just getting her out of Afghanistan,” said Alice. “Mark didn’t think we could even do that.”
Lost In Transit
Cinnamon’s journey was to take her to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, then through Istanbul, Turkey, to Chicago, where a friend of Feffer’s would meet her and arrange for her flight to Baltimore.
The traveling dog only made it as far as Bishkek.
In Maryland, Alice learned Cinnamon was AWOL when their Chicago friends reported she hadn’t arrived on the flight.
To their horror, the Feffers learned that Cinnamon had been abandoned at the Bishkek airport after being turned away as a civilian dog from the kennels on the American base. Airport employees then had given Feffer’s dog away, according to Base Chief Master Sergeant Michael Blake.
“I was told she’s gone,” Feffer said. “I was devastated.”
Grief stricken, Feffer believed Cinnamon was lost to him. His sister, Christine Sullivan, disagreed. Experienced with animal rescue in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, she took over the search for the missing dog.
“I just believed I was going to find this dog,” Sullivan told Bay Weekly.
Through the World Society for the Protection of Animals in London, Sullivan got in touch with Yulia Ten, a Society of volunteers in Bishkek.
“Yulia talked to the employees at the airport,” Sullivan said. “She learned the soldiers from the base in Bishkek who were helping Mark find Cinnamon were misled: The airport employees took Cinnamon from the handler out of pity because he was kicking the crate and threatening to take her out back and shoot her.”
Sullivan called Feffer: “We found her.”
One Lucky Dog
In Bishkek, Cinnamon had been given to local farmer Katib Ridvan. Even after Ten told Ridvan what had happened, he didn’t want to give up the dog. In three weeks, she had become a part of his family.
Then the farmer had a change of heart. “It’s been hard to have two dogs, and Cinnamon has killed some of our chickens,” he told Ten. “So you can have her back.”
In Bishkek, Master Sergeant Blake offered a free airline ticket home to anyone willing to take Cinnamon along. A civilian contractor, Michael Tompsen, volunteered.
“Blake went above and beyond,” says Feffer. “He’d met Cinnamon at the military kennel at Bishkek and knew she was special.”
Sullivan remembers the moment her brother got the call that Cinnamon was en route to Maryland: “We were all eating crabs at Cantler’s.”
Feffer, his father and Sullivan, drove to New York’s Kennedy Airport to meet Cinnamon’s flight.
It was July 18, 2006, 44 days after Cinnamon left Kandahar.
“We knew she got on the plane in Bishkek,” says Feffer, “but there was a layover in Moscow. We were worried sick. Then I saw the man wheeling her crate out of customs.”
Fighting his way through throngs waiting to greet international passengers, Feffer got to Cinnamon just as she was let out of her crate.
“She just licked my face,” he says. “She licked the tears off my face.”
Christine Sullivan has written about Cinnamon’s amazing journey in 44 Days Out Of Kandahar. A percentage of the profits is donated to help care for animals in need. The book is being made into a movie, with Sullivan collaborating on the screenplay: www.44-days.com.