In 2006, while serving as a Royal Marine Commando in Helmand Province, Sergeant Pen Farthing encountered a battle just outside their operating base of Nowzad. It wasn't a typical show of combat between men; this was a rough and brutal organised dog fight. Pen stepped in without hesitation to end the vicious display, completely unaware how this action would change his life.
Saved from the brutal bloodbath, one of the dogs, a mangy mongrel with a docked ear, immediately adopted Pen, faithfully following the Sergeant everywhere. They became best buddies and inseparable friends. So strong was their bond that Pen set in motion the necessary procedures to bring his new pal 'Nowzad' back home to the West Country of England. After saving one animal, Pen was determined to save more. And thus Nowzad Dogs, a not for profit charity, was born.
It's the last thing most of us think about; animal welfare in Afghanistan and Iraq. But you don't have to dig too deep to learn that there are absolutely no welfare programmes or respect. Many animals are seen as a commodity and worked in to the ground. Dogs and cats have no purpose and stray as feral beasts; starving, lost and surviving in an ignored world of illness and disease. Rabies is an increasing threat and there are no vaccines.
But this acrid picture of neglect gives birth to some truly remarkable relationships. For soldiers on the frontline receiving a daily offensive from the Taliban, home can become a distant memory. But for many, the situation is made bearable as the result of a serendipitous encounter with a stray looking for a friend. "Coming in from patrol," says Pen, "and being greeted by a big ball of fur with an over-active wagging tail is that ray of positive light most soldiers need to grasp. The dog is going through what they are going through. The dogs gives the soldier normality, the soldier gives the dog friendship."
With five full time Afghan nationals, one member of staff in the UK and a host of global volunteers, Nowzad Dogs provide a critical service to protect this soldier / canine bond for life. After receiving notification from a soldier, they do their best to collect the animal and take it to the Nowzad shelter where it is vaccinated and given a health check before funds are raised to re-home the dog with the soldiers family in the UK or US. So far, over 300 dogs have been rescued and relocated to families in the West. And the work of Nowzad Dogs has led to some surprising changes in local attitude. They've seen an increase in Afghan nationals bringing dogs to be neutered as a need to reduce the stray dog population becomes recognised.
The work of this charity provides the basis for literally hundreds of inspiring stories. The connections formed between animals and humans in such a hostile, frightening and stressful environment demonstrates oneness and love at its deepest level. And Nowzad Dogs appreciates and supports that with the work they do. Sadly, however, the struggle to raise funds is becoming increasingly difficult and to make matters worse, they've just lost the lease on their shelter. Operating on a temporary piece of land, they now have just three months to raise £156,050 and buy their own plot in the hope of rebuilding from scratch. If they don't, it's all over. Simple as that.
At the time of writing this, they are £143,585 short. And the reality of not reaching their target is bleak. No more vaccinations. No more health checks. No more neutering. And soldiers with no choice but to leave their friends behind when their tours of duty come to an end. Imagine that for a moment. It's heartbreaking.
The lives of over 300 serving soldiers have been made more bearable from the strays who befriended them. And thanks to Nowzad Dogs, the lives of those once lost and starving animals have been irrevocably transformed. My hope is that in 90 days time, Pen and his team will be in a position to transform the lives of at least 300 more.
There are some incredible stories, pictures and a chance to donate on their website, http://www.nowzad.com. And for real insight in to a world so few of us really know about, Pen's book 'One Dog At A Time' is available now. It's a remarkable and inspiring read.