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July 14, 2008

Finding Peace After War

No one returns from combat unchanged, and even as the nation continues to debate American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, we see the toll of combat service upon returning soldiers. Physical wounds are not the only injuries they suffer, and stress and conflict do not necessarily end when their terms of service do.

Jay Kopelman and Lava in Iraq
Jay Kopelman and Lava, as a puppy, in Iraq.

This is the theme of "From Baghdad to America: Life Lessons from a Dog Named Lava" by Jay Kopelman, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel. Jay’s first book, "From Baghdad with Love," about the dog he rescued in Iraq, was a bestseller, and The HSUS has worked with him on a number of animal welfare issues tied to the Iraq war, such as petkeeping by soldiers, animal control in conflict zones, and the case of a marine videotaped throwing a puppy into a ravine. I was proud to provide a foreword for Jay's second book.

I figured that this one would pick up the story of Lava and Jay living good in southern California. Yet I soon discovered that "From Baghdad to America" was truly a different book. Together, Jay and Lava put a face on a set of issues that should concern us all: the effects of depression, detachment, and other negative emotions resulting from combat stress and trauma. Jay's experience with Lava shows the tremendous emotional and healing benefits of the human-animal bond.

Jay addresses these matters with courage and sensitivity, and that’s why "From Baghdad to America" is more than just an entertaining narrative of dog rescue. It’s a call for honesty in confronting the emotional impacts of the Iraq war on our veterans.

In April, The New York Times reported that some 27 percent of noncommissioned officers on their third or fourth tour exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Another study found that 20 percent of active duty and 42 percent of National Guard troops and reservists are suffering mental health problems.

From Baghdad to America: Life Lessons from a Dog Named LavaAnd last year, CBS News reported that there were 6,256 apparent suicides among U.S. veterans in 2005, double the suicide rate among the general population. Even more alarming was the rate of suicide among veterans aged 20 to 24—estimated to be between 2.5 and almost four times higher than nonveterans in the same age group. More recently, the U.S. Army reported that 115 active duty troops committed suicide in 2007, nearly twice the rate recorded before the invasion of Iraq and the highest annual toll the military has recorded.

There is a tie-in to animal welfare here, if an indirect one. Of our 25 million veterans, approximately 1.6 million have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of them are or will become fathers and mothers, police officers and fire rescue personnel, prosecutors and defense attorneys, humane society officers and elementary school teachers, veterinary technicians and social workers. Each, to some degree or another, will play a part in determining the fate of animals who depend upon the compassionate care of human beings. Each will be a citizen in a community with its own set of human and animal-related concerns.

For our communities to be healthy in every respect, we need to ensure the health and wellbeing of those Americans who have served our nation in the noblest fashion. I applaud Jay for addressing this urgent issue, using the framework of his relationship with Lava to focus our attention.

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