They met in northern Iraq under the most trying of circumstances. Army Sgt. 1st Class Russell Joyce and his unit needed a guard dog. A scruffy, rail-thin German shepherd needed a home.
Although most of the soldiers in the Special Forces unit thought that the dog looked too frail, Joyce believed that it deserved a chance. He fed it, trained it and, almost as a joke, named it Fluffy.
Through it all, man and dog forged a commitment that lasted through war and government red tape, and all the way back to a reunion and a new home in North Carolina.
“What makes this dog so great is, look at the irony,” Joyce said. “We took this dog from Iraq, we trained it and we used it for our own security.”
Joyce got Fluffy out of necessity. His unit, 3rd Group, Special Forces, Alpha Company, 3rd Battalion, had used a dog to ward off intruders when stationed in Afghanistan and wanted another in Iraq. In March, they asked Kurdish soldiers in the area to search the streets for a suitable stray.
The Kurds came back with a gaunt German shepherd with scars on its head and legs, and missing several teeth.
“When we got him, he was pretty thin. He didn’t have much pep in his step and he was pretty scared,” Joyce said. “He literally didn’t move for a day.”
Because Joyce didn’t have any dog food, he fed the animal mutton, chicken and rice out of his hand. He taught the dog basic commands like heel and sit, and how to walk as a sentry dog -- stay on the left side and near the handler.
Within a couple of weeks, Joyce and his fellow soldiers noticed that the dog was becoming aggressive to outsiders. At one point, Fluffy chased a Kurdish soldier over a fence, tearing off his pants.
“It definitely looked after us,” he said. “If any American went to walk guard, meaning walk patrol, he would go right to their left side and he would stand right by them.”
Joyce and Fluffy worked together until he returned home from Iraq on May 10. But the dog wasn’t allowed to go with Joyce beause he hadn’t come from the United States with the troops.
Worse, unless Joyce could find him a good home in Iraq or some way to bring the dog back with him, Fluffy would be euthanized.
Fluffy stayed with the 506th Security Forces Squadron in Iraq while Joyce started his anxious campaign at Ft. Bragg.
Joyce began with e-mails and calls to the State Department, U.S. War Dogs Assn. President Ron Aiello and Monty Moore, a former Vietnam dog handler who runs a Web page dedicated to war dogs.
“What I heard in his voice was something I had heard hundreds of times from former military handlers from the Vietnam era who talk about their canines to this day and the love and devotion we have for them,” Aiello said. “Russell had that same emotion about Fluffy.”
Aiello wrote Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and set up a page in Fluffy’s honor on his Web site.
Within days, Joyce had received more than 1,500 e-mails inquiring about the situation. At least 32 U.S. senators also contacted him to offer help.
By the time Joyce called Fluffy’s caretakers in Iraq to tell them that the machinery was in motion to bring the dog home, the Pentagon had already contacted the squadron to ask about Fluffy.
And the military found a way to gently bend its own guidelines to allow for Fluffy’s transfer: It designated him an honorary working military dog with honorary war dog status.
Don Stump, an Army deputy division chief in Washington, D.C., helped ease the process. Nearly 30 people in the military hierarchy had to sign off on the transfer and bring a successful end to what supporters called “Operation Free Fluffy.”
“It stirred me up when I thought about the selfless action and courage of Fluffy,” Stump said.
The Army footed the $274 to fly Fluffy to North Carolina, where Joyce was reunited with the German shepherd June 7.
The dog has won over his children Sam, 12, and Elise, 6, and his wife, Caroline.
“He’s doing great here,” Joyce said. “He plays with my kids, and he’s not shown any aggressive behavior. We’re working to deprogram him.”
Caroline Joyce thought that her husband was joking when he first broached the subject of bringing the dog home. Although she and the dog have become friends, it’s clear who Fluffy loves most.
“The dog is fine with me, but if my husband is around, he doesn’t want to have anything to do with me,” she said. “He just walks beside my husband and gazes at him all the time.”
On a recent summer day, Fluffy circled nervously, whimpering while Joyce ducked into an office building. Once Joyce emerged, Fluffy leaped in the air.
“I see you,” Joyce said with a grin as he moved closer to pet the dog on the head. “He really has a tough time because we were together the whole time when we were over there.”
With Fluffy dutifully in tow, Joyce has no regrets.
“I don’t label him as a pet,” he said. “I label him as a buddy.”