Over a pint of Brooklyn Brewery ale at the Half King in Manhattan’s Chelsea district, Pen Farthing recounts his tour of duty in Afghanistan. He was in the U.S. to drum up support not for soldiers, but for dogs.
“Sadly, dogfighting in Afghanistan is a national sport,” said Farthing, an author and former sergeant in Britain’s Royal Marines.
In late 2006, he arrived in the Afghan province of Helmand, where he was stationed with Kilo Company. Within a few weeks, Farthing was appalled to find the Afghan National Police staging brutal dogfights, something that hadn’t been allowed under Taliban rule.
He broke up one fight and eventually adopted a fierce and scarred Alsatian-looking dog the Marines named Nowzad, after the battle-scarred town in which they were based.
“We went into Now Zad thinking we were going to be there for 3 weeks,” he says. “We were there for 33.”
During those months of hardship, homesickness and Taliban attacks, Farthing and his men began taking in stray dogs. Soon after Nowzad came RPG (rocket-propelled grenade), Jena and Tali, the latter -- named for the Islamist militants -- with six puppies.
The soldiers built a shelter and fed the dogs leftover rations. Though the commanding officers of Kilo Company turned a blind eye to the makeshift kennel, eventually the dogs had to be moved. Farthing found an animal shelter hundreds of miles to the north and was able to pay a series of taxi drivers to deliver the dogs in an exodus that lasted several days.
In May 2007, Farthing founded Nowzad Dogs, which helps wartime soldiers save dogs or cats they’ve adopted against military regulations. It also educates local communities on animal welfare, no small trick in a culture with mixed feelings about dogs.
“Within days of starting the charity, we had our first American soldier asking us for help,” Farthing says. Nowzad Dogs helps find rescued dogs homes in the U.K. and elsewhere, and has expanded to help with rescues in Iraq. Farthing says he’s getting e-mails from “a wave of people from Iran” who are looking for ways to save abused and abandoned dogs there.
In his books and presentations, Farthing speaks of a simple but profound value he and other soldiers derive from dogs. After the typical day of extreme boredom, terrible food and dodging Taliban fire, there is something calming and necessary about the time spent just petting a dog.
“There was s--t going on outside the wire,” he says, speaking of the perimeter surrounding his base. “For five minutes I didn’t have to think about that.”
He was aware of the ameliorative effects on other soldiers. “That little dog, for that brief period, it’s a positive thing. That’s the general feeling.” Farthing is convinced that simply spending quiet time with a loving dog may help prevent post-traumatic stress.
The ex-soldier returns to Afghanistan periodically, in part to relieve the one volunteer overseeing the animal shelter, a woman who manages to function despite cultural constraints, such as not being allowed to attend meetings with community leaders.
The animal shelter is near Kabul, but some secrecy is necessary to prevent being targeted by the Taliban. Nor does Nowzad publicize the names of active soldiers who have flouted regulations to adopt pets.
About 230 dogs and 10 cats have been saved. One American soldier wanted to bring back a cow.
“To him it became a bit like a dog, I suppose,” said Farthing, who couldn’t accommodate that request.
Other stories are heart-wrenching. Conrad Lewis was a British paratrooper who adopted a dog he named Pegasus. Lewis was killed in action last February, and the dog was orphaned.
Farthing recalls the appeals from Lewis’s distraught parents, who knew of Pegasus: “They said, ‘You’ve got to get this dog. It’s the only connection we have we have to our son,’ When they got the dog back it was quite emotional. Almost like their son came back.”
Farthing’s 2009 book, “One Dog at a Time,” recounts the perils of rescuing dogs in a war zone and reads like James Herriot with gunfire. A follow-up published this year, “No Place Like Home,” describes the transplanted dogs’ lives in the U.K. A portion of sales goes to support his work.
Farthing is setting up a U.S.-based version of Nowzad Dogs, something he hopes can be done within months. Until then, donors can contribute via American Dog Rescue.
“We’re not just fanatical dog-lovers,” he says. “We want to make a difference in Afghanistan.”
(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)