Happy ending for a war dog


In war, there are few winners whose lives are changed wholly for the good.

Fluffy the "commando dog" is one of them.

Malnourished, abused and missing teeth, Fluffy was rescued from his miserable existence in Iraq by a U.S. Army Special Forces team early in the war. Serving as a makeshift sentry and guard in the northern reaches of the country, the raggedy German shepherd saved the soldiers’ lives more than once.

When it came time to come home, Sgt.1st Class Russell Joyce _ who gave the dog his irreverent name, dosed him with TLC and molded him into a first-rate protector _ couldn’t bear to leave Fluffy behind.

After a full-bore effort to bend bureaucratic rules by Vietnam War veterans, a handful of U.S. lawmakers, and countless animal lovers nationwide, Fluffy made it to America and a new life with Joyce’s family in North Carolina in June 2003.

In the three years since, Fluffy _ via his adoptive humans _ has himself become a force for good.

He’s helped raise money for the U.S. War Dog Association, a nonprofit outfit of former Vietnam War dog handlers and others who are establishing a memorial to the thousands of canines who have served _ and died _ alongside GIs in more than 80 years of U.S. wars, Joyce said.

"Russell and Fluffy have been a real boost to our organization," said Ron Aiello, president of the group and a Vietnam vet.

Fluffy was also awarded honorary U.S. Military Working Dog status by the military, had dog treats named after him by a manufacturer, secured a spot in the Fort Benning, Ga., National Infantry Museum, and was featured on "America’s Top Dog" on the A&E Network.

He donated a lifetime supply of dog food bestowed on him by the IAMS pet-care company to the offspring of the late Bear, a golden retriever search dog who, during 18-hour days in the rubble of the World Trade Center, found more remains than any other canine.

Now, Fluffy is the star of a children’s book created by the Joyce family, who took out a five-figure loan and shelled out more from their savings to bring "Fluffy’s Journey" to print. Joyce’s daughter Samantha, 14, wrote the text, with some help from her mother, Caroline, a special-education teacher. Daughter Elise, 8, drew the portraits that close the book.

It is a story of the ups and downs of Fluffy’s odyssey to America and the friends he made along the way. The $19 book features cheerful illustrations of Humvees, Iraqi villages and the mountains of northern Iraq. The war is not to be seen.

Joyce, 38, and a soldier for 15 years, said the book’s purpose is to help raise money for the war-dog association, animal shelters, rescue groups and others. Since the book was published last summer, interest in it _ and the causes it promotes _ has mushroomed.

School libraries and military base exchanges have ordered hundreds of the books, and a roster of celebrities _ comedian Robin Williams, actor Gary Sinise and unconventional physician Patch Adams _ have signed on in support.

"It’s been a lot of fun," Joyce said. He and his family intend to publish two more Fluffy books in coming years.

The first, with its story of hardship overcome in the quest for a new life, has resonated with elementary-school children routed from their Louisiana homes by Hurricane Katrina.

Audrey Rivers, who uses her PetShare nonprofit group to help at-risk kids in Houston, gave the book to each Katrina evacuee in an after-school program, and was amazed at the reaction.

"I was surprised how the kids really made a connection to Fluffy and his story as it related to theirs," Rivers said. One little boy cried when he read the book _ the first time he had let his emotions out in front of others.

"It really helped the kids to open up," she said.

Fluffy, of course, is oblivious to all the good he is doing. Now an estimated 5 years old, he sleeps not in a dusty street in a country where dogs are generally disliked _ or worse _ but on a red-white-and-blue quilt sewn specially for him by a fan. He’s been showered with chew toys and dog treats from far and wide.

When Joyce first saw him, Fluffy was kept close to a baker’s cart by a chain so heavy and short that the dog had trouble holding his head up. His job was to keep thieves away. Joyce and his commando comrades bought him for a pittance.

Fluffy proved to be ferociously protective _ a trait that has mellowed some since he came to the United States but still surfaces enough that Joyce must be careful to keep the dog out of situations that could trigger that impulse. Otherwise, Fluffy has adjusted well to his new life.

"He’s having a blast," Joyce said.


On the Web: www.fluffysbook.citymax.com., www.uswardogs.org



(Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)shns.com)