I had many reasons to join the Marines - to fight for freedom, to be challenged, to serve something greater than myself. But rescuing a dog from a war zone was never one of them.
In the summer of 2010 I was deployed to Afghanistan and became part of a surge of troops sent to Helmand Province and other dangerous hot spots in the country, where I was selected to serve as the Intel collector for a team of elite Reconnaissance Marines, or 'recon' as they’re known.
We were sent into an area called Sangin. It had been held by the Taliban for years and they had resources and numbers that surpassed any other region of Afghanistan. We were in for the fight of our lives.
The first morning we looked down from our makeshift base into an area called the Green Zone. Having been briefed on the Taliban’s capabilities and tactics in the region, we were immediately on guard, expecting to be attacked at any moment. So we were surprised when we saw villagers and entire families walking towards us through the fields, carrying their belongings on their backs and pushing their elderly in wheelbarrows. It was obvious that they were refugees in their own country, and if they remained in their homes, they’d be susceptible to the Taliban and their horrific practice of using villagers as human shields during attacks.
We put down our weapons and helped them up the steep hill near our base, each of them answering my questions as to why they were fleeing with the same response: “Taliban”.
When the fighting did start, the Taliban opened up on our position with everything they had. They fired on us with mortars, RPGs, large caliber machine gun fire and small arms. An unarmed drone that was monitoring the battleground radioed down that we were fighting against at least one-hundred and fifty Taliban. There was about sixty of us and the best we could do was have seven or eight Marines return fire because of the size of our base and its limited number of fighting positions.
The fighting continued for seven days.
It was between attacks, as I was cleaning my rifle and making something to eat, that I’d spotted this little stray dog bopping around our perimeter. He had a confident trot and a spirit that stood in stark contrast to the harsh surroundings he was born into. It was a rare quiet moment, so I cautiously approached the plucky pup with a piece of beef jerky. We weren’t supposed to interact with stray dogs and I’d had no problem following that rule so far – most of the dogs we saw were vicious, shaped by the harsh environment they’d grown up in. But this guy was different and I wanted to know why.
As I got closer I almost changed my mind. He was covered in bugs, his fur matted with dirt and grime. It was clear he’d never been shown any love. This is a bad idea, I thought. But then I heard a sound that has forever changed my life. A faint thwap, thwap, thwap.
The dog was wagging his tail. It was the last thing I thought he’d do.
I held the jerky out to him and he surprised me for a second time. He took the jerky as gently as he could with his front teeth before politely chewing. I swear if he’d had a napkin he would have wiped his mouth. I was stunned.
We spent a few minutes together in the dust, just a man and a dog, before the reality of what I was doing set in. It was against the rules to cozy up to strays and at any moment we could be under attack again. There was work to be done, so I stood and began walking back to my gear. But then I felt a poke at my heal. I looked down to see this dusty dog peering up at me with the most soulful and intrepid gaze. A fellow Marine observing our interaction remarked, “Looks like you made a friend”, but what I heard was, “Looks like a Fred”.
So Fred it was.
From then on, he was by my side. Going on patrols. Playing tug-o-war. Meeting with village elders. Talking with families. Taking naps. Dodging IEDs, mortars and other dangerous things that become part of your daily life when you’re in Afghanistan.
Very quickly it became clear to me and my fellow Marines that Fred was something special. He came to embody everything that we were fighting for in Sangin: the protection of innocence and the value of a peaceful existence. So giving him the life he deserved seemed the only thing to do.
But it was risky.
We were to be picked up by helicopters and flown back for a two week break on Camp Leatherneck before returning to Sangin. Even if we were able to get Fred on the helicopter, how would I get him to the States? If I was caught, he’d be put down, no questions asked. Was it worth the risk?
I let Fred decide.
The morning of our extract I told him that if he followed me to the helicopter, if he wasn’t scared by the noise, dust, and chaos of the extraction, then I’d stuff him in a duffle bag and do everything I could to get him the rest of the way home.
That turned out to be the easy part.
Getting Fred to my family in the United States took will and effort from people all over the world. Volunteers I met in Afghanistan from the Philippines, Uganda, Indonesia, the UK and the United States. They all understood why Fred was special and wanted to do their part to protect him. It was one of the most challenging and stressful things I’ve ever done.
He beat me home by four months. My Dad took care of him until my own homecoming.
Once Fred and I were reunited, it was Fred’s turn to rescue me. I ended my time in the Marines shortly after getting home and began working for the government in Washington DC. On the outside everything looked great. I had all my body parts, a great job, a new truck, an amazing group of friends… but on the inside I was in a lot of pain. But I wasn’t alone. After a long day of spreadsheets and emails, I’d come home to Fred and the two of us would hit the streets of our nation’s capitol. We’d walk or run every night until the sun went down.
Everywhere we went people stopped and asked me what kind of dog Fred was. So I’d tell them. I’d tell them about Sangin and what the people there had to endure every day. I’d tell them about the Taliban and their cruelty. I’d tell them about my fellow Marines and their bravery and courage that became a part of our everyday existence. I’d tell them about my first moments with him and how he wagged his tail. This always seemed to be the part of the story that got people’s attention the most.
Fred’s example became a part of my personal philosophy. Something I call “Stubborn Positivity”. I apply it to the moments in life when we feel like nothing is going right, when we have every possible justification to react negatively to a situation. I believe it is in those moments that we can learn from Fred, and in a way, wag our own tails. Because no matter how bad things might be, there is always something to be grateful for.
Sharing our story became my favourite part of the day. The more I shared it with strangers on the street or people who just wanted to hear it again, the more I realised that Fred’s message wasn’t just for me, it was for all of us. So I did something I thought I’d never do - I went back to school. I left my job with the government and enrolled in classes at Georgetown University. For the first time in my life I felt at home in a classroom. I loved my studies, especially writing.
I spent the next three years writing Fred’s story next to my studies. The more I wrote, the more I realised our story was bigger than me, and I was in debt to my fellow Marines, to my friends who laid their lives down for me, and the people of Afghanistan who continue to struggle to live peacefully in their own country. Telling this story became my duty, and it still is.
My book Craig and Fred: A Marine A Stray Dog and How They Rescued Each Other is the realisation of a goal years in the making. It is the story of how a dirty little street dog wagged his tail at a Marine on a battlefield, and how that changed everything for both of them.
And it is just the beginning.
Now, together with my girlfriend Nora and our other dog Ruby, Fred and I travel the country. We speak at schools, libraries, bookstores, corporate events and just about anywhere people will have us. We want the whole world to see how far a little stubborn positivity can take you.
Craig Grossi is an author, speaker and former US Marine