I buried my best friend yesterday.
She was an Iraqi War veteran, explorer, protector and my best buddy.
I'm guessing Kelebi (her name means "my dog" in Arabic) was born in Baghdad, Iraq in May 2003. I found her during a reconnaissance mission in June (full story: http://exm.nr/OcEPTM). Our company motto was "Scavengers" because it was our mission to collect enemy equipment and technical data for U.S. intelligence analysts to study. Kelby was definately a Scavenger.
Considered to be filthy animals, there are no breeds of dogs in Iraq, so Kelby isn't a mix of anything. Her ancestors being feral for thousands of years, she's pure dog. She was the first dog "rescued" from Iraq. But, it is more accurate to say, I didn't rescue her. She rescued me.
Baghdad in the summer of 2003 was anarchy. No law, no police, murder was rampant in the streets and as the insurgency gained momentum, more and more Americans were being killed. My intelligence reconnaissance company was out on the streets and all over the country every day. But, when we got back to our battalion compound, Kelby was always there to greet us.
Amid the smoke, bullets, mortar shells, rockets and death, Kelby brought a touch of home. After our missions, I could take my dog for a walk, play with her and forget the day. When I was with Kelby, I wasn't at war.
It took the efforts of the FBI, the CIA, the Baghdad zoo, Air France, the American Humane Society and the Queen of Jordan, but she finally made it to the United States. Then she really blossomed into a great family dog. She loved the kids, all kids. She was the perfect trail dog. On a cold, overcast and drizzly autumn day took her to Lampson Falls on the Oswegatchie River, on our first of what was to be many, many trail hikes and mountain climbs in the Adirondacks of NY.
There is a gate at the trailhead to stop vehicles from going onto the trails. As we passed this gate, I went around and Kelby went under, tangling her leash around a post. I stood there a moment, contemplating my next move. Kelby had never been off her leash before, especially in the wild. I didn't know if she would stay with me or run off, never to be seen again.
Aprehensively, I released her and watched. She went through the gate and waited for me on the other side with that "Ok, let's go" look in her eyes I would come to know so well. She was never on a leash again. Over rocky mountain tops, through rushing waters, over miles and miles of trails, and swampy bogs, she never left my side (see slideshow).
We loved waterfalls and would drive and hike for miles looking for them. Twice, while trying to follow me near the rapids, she slipped off the rocks and fell in. Coming from the desert of Iraq, Kelby wasn't really a water dog and not a strong swimmer. Twice, panicked, I jumped in after her, both of us carried by the current until we found our footing again. But, even that couldn't dampen her enthusiasm for adventure.
She's a dog. So, she loved to sniff and smell and look for animals to chase. The few animals that she saw were more playmates than prey. But the animals didn't know that. I didn't mind, and she had never shown a propensity to kill anything she might catch either. She sent a few squirrels up trees and rabbits into their holes, but she never came close to catching any of them. My only instructions to her were "Kelby, you're not allowed to chase skunks or porcupines" for obvious reasons.
One day, while hiking on a nature trail in Cold Spring State Forest, my warning went unheeded. She spotted a porcupine hanging onto a tree trunk about three feet off the ground enjoying ths sunshine. Uncharacteristically, she jumped up and tried to bite the unsuspecting animal. Leaping through the air, mouth agape, Kelby's face made contact right where the porcupine's tail connected with its back. The damage was done.
She didn't yelp. She didn't whine or cry. Kelby just ran back to me, shaking her head from the pain. I couldn't help but to give her more than a few "see, I told you so, no porcupines" as she sat in front of me on the trail, her eyes pleading for help . She looked like a pin cushion with at least twenty black and white quills sticking out all over her face. They were in her lips, up her nostrils, even in her gums. I sat crossed legged in front of her on the forest trail, miles from help or even cell phone coverage.
Patiently and unrestrained, she knew what had to be done. I patted her head and said, "Ok, Kelby, this is going to suck - a lot." I swear she nodded in a agreement and closed her eyes, waiting to begin. One by one, I plucked out the quills. With each yank, she leaned back and shook her head until the stinging subsided. Then, with a sigh and a deep breath, she'd collect herself, settle down and wait for the next pull.
I was so proud of her. Job done, she immediately went back to sniffing the underbrush, only now a little wiser.
Kelby was my faithful and loyal companion. When I frst retired from the Army and returned to my home in New York, times were tough. I didn't find a job right away and money was tight. She could perfectly read my moods and cheered me up when I was down, provided unconditional love, and friendship when I was homeless and alone. Just like in Iraq, when I was with Kelby, I was never alone.
Kelby wasn't a dog. She spoke English and would talk. On the trail or off, I could just talk to her and she understood. Whether it was "I'll meet you at the front door" or "be careful around those rocks" she always looked with those intelligent eyes and agreed as if to say "Ok, got it, thanks." When she had something to say, Kelby would talk with a mixture of gentle singing intonations that weren't howls or barks, but something else. Something that was uniquely hers. Something I have never seen or heard in any other dog. When greeting a friend, she would seek them out and say hello. When leaving, she would say goodbye. When visiting anyone elderly, she invariably lay by their feet. Unobstrusive and unpretentious, she offered friendship and comfort, expecting nothing in return. Kelby wasn't a dog; she was a dear friend - full of life, playfullness, intelligence, compassion and personality.
There will never be another dog like her.
Then she was taken from me. On a sunny unseasonably warm winter day, 10 January 2013, Kelby had gone out and went next door to visit the neighbors. Trotting home, she was struck by a car and killed. She wasn't in the middle of the road. She didn't chase cars. She was lying next to the mailbox, right at the end of the driveway inside the white line that marks where cars go and where they do not. Another three feet and she would have made the turn down towards the house and would have been safe. But it wasn't to be.
The car that snuffed out Kelby's life never stopped. The cowardly driver will never have any idea what they took from me. The thoughtless, inattentive or cruel driver will never know who Kelby was, where she came from or how great a dog she was. To say she will be missed is an understatement. There is a hole in my heart and in my lfie that will always be Kelby's. I still love the outdoors and still love the mountains. But, if I do go again, it will never be the same without her by my side.
On a warm, overcast and drizzly winter's evening, Kelby and I went back to Lampson Falls. This time, I was carrying a shovel and a pick, and Kelby was behind me. Instead of bouncing ahead, full of anticipation of trail ahead, she lay wrapped in her favorite blankets, on my kids' sled being pulled through the snow. In my pocket were her US Army Service Medal, Combat Action Badge and Iraq War Service Medal I awarded her. We came to the gate again, and again she went under. Just like the first time we visited.
For every hike we went on, our only stipulation was to be out of the woods before dark. This time, however, I sat there in the snow, tears rolling down my cheeks, apologizing and trying to explain to her why it was different now. In the gathering darkness she was being left behind, laid to rest in God's arms.
Kelby rests now. On a hilltop overlooking the first waterfall we visited, perpetually soothed by the sound of the rushing waters she loved so much.