For Tommie Johnson and his fellow Marines, leaving rescued pups behind to face harsh conditions simply wasn’t an option. SPCA International stepped in to help bring them home.

In late November 2020, U.S. Lance Corporal Tommie Johnson and other members of his Marine unit received word that they wouldn't be able to leave their base in Krtsanisi, Georgia, in Eastern Europe until their 10-month deployment ended in February. This news struck a sharp blow to morale. Johnson tells Daily Paws in an interview that the delay was due, in part, to the COVID-19 pandemic. "Everyone was getting tired of the same monotonous stuff, seeing the same people, and only going to work and then going back to sleep in these little rooms. So morale got really low and depressing." His unit was stationed on a small compound, approximately 200 meters wide by 60 meters long-like the size of an average college dorm room with a few military personnel packed inside.

But everything changed one cold and rainy winter night during a PT run. Johnson and some other Marines discovered six abandoned puppies along the side of the road.

"One of them was hurt, badly. The speculation was that she was hit by a car. She had a fractured hip and a broken leg that was already in the process of being healed, a vet told us," Johnson says. "So we were told to keep watch to make sure it was healing properly." 

Adult black marine holds blond lab puppy in one hand
Credit: Courtesy of Tommie Johnson

She and her littermates, breed undetermined, were only about six weeks old. Johnson says temperatures drop below freezing at night in Georgia, so although there was no way of knowing how long they were out in the wild, he believed they survived by huddling together for warmth. "They were all below five pounds, and just looked like little meatballs, because they were bloated from malnourishment," he adds. 

The Marines decided to care for all the pups, seeing them through an extensive deworming process, following a strict eating schedule coordinated with their medicine, and keeping an eye on the progress of the injured pup. "When the puppies came, it pretty much brought light to the situation we were in," Johnson says.

'It's a Blessing She's Still Alive'

As he cared for her, Johnson really became attached to the injured pup. Johnson and his fellow servicemen used three bowls to make sure she and her siblings got all the food they needed. "Most puppies with her kind of injuries don't get food at all-they can't keep up," Johnson says. It took about a month for her to start walking better, although with a slight limp.

She was also the last puppy to receive a name, as no one could come up with anything that fit. Totally committed to bringing her home, Johnson finally found the inspiration. "Everyone kept saying that it was a blessing that she was still alive, so one morning I woke up and said, 'Well, if she's a blessing, let's just call her that.' And so Blessing is her name." 

Blonde lab puppy sits on rocks with black leash attached to collar
Credit: Courtesy of Tommie Johnson

Six Pups Find Forever Homes With Help from SPCA International

As the unit's deployment came to an end, the Marines shared a connection with the resilient pups. Each dog had a new hero rescuer, but returning to the U.S. with the dogs presented complications. Military regulations currently prohibit animals on official transportation. So they reached out to SPCA International, a global animal rescue organization, whose program Operation Baghdad Pups: Worldwide assists American military personnel with pet companions they form bonds with while serving overseas.

"The SPCA International packets are very detailed and they give you every bit of information you need to know to get them home," Johnson says. "Once we got that knowledge, it was already said and done that we were going to bring the puppies home at whatever cost." 

Meredith Ayan is the executive director of SPCA International. Since 2008, when the program began, they've helped rescue more than 1,100 animals-and have never turned anyone down because of funding. "We're so proud to be able to provide this service to our troops-it's an honor to be able to give back to them in this way."

At face value, it seems like it's as simple as flying animals from one place to another, but that's not the case at all, Ayan says. The logistics to transfer animals to America is a huge undertaking involving many moving parts. 

"Vet care, health certificates, vaccinations, boarding, transportation-the list goes on," Ayan tells Daily Paws. "In order to comply with U.S. regulations for importing animals, all animals have to be vaccinated 30 days in advance of entering the country. That means they'll be in our care for at least a month before traveling to the U.S." So while these Marines came home in mid-February, they wouldn't reunite with their furry comrades until the end of March. 

Because of Blessing's condition, Ayan says she required additional health certificates before leaving Europe. Then, she and the other rescues arrived in New York City, where they stayed for a few days to decompress after the long journey. Afterward, Blessing traveled to Johnson's home in Hapeville, Ga., outside of Atlanta, which he shares with his mother and younger siblings. And what a reunion it was!

"She was in a crate, and they wouldn't let me take her out at the airport, but I could tell she recognized me," Johnson says. "So when I put her in the back of my truck and opened up her crate, she instantly jumped on me." Already a savvy pet parent, Johnson had a pocket full of the same treats he used to feed her overseas to spark the nostalgia of their time together. "I think she smelled them when I opened the crate, and she just got so excited!"

He says everyone loves Blessing, and that she's really loving, too, with energy to spare! "She has a really derpy run because of her injury, but it's so cute! I have a fenced-in backyard, and she has a plush football that I throw, and she'll run after it," Johnson says. "We'll do this for 30-45 minutes at a time."

Johnson says he's glad to have bonded with Blessing while she was so young. "Puppies don't know to not trust humans, and that's the thing I enjoy with Blessing. She's completely trusting in everyone," he says. "I took her to the dog park recently, and she ran up to everyone-mouth wide open, tongue hanging out, tail wagging so hard it almost knocks her over! I love that she's so trusting and knows no harm will come to her." 

He adds that the animals they encountered while overseas have difficult lives. The dogs can be very territorial, fighting with each other in their struggle to survive. "It wasn't an area we wanted to leave the puppies in, especially since we got attached," he says. "It's kind of like having a kid. You want the best for them."