War Dogs: U.S. Soldiers Talk About the Comfort of Having Dogs With Their Unit in Afghanistan

PHOTO: Athena, a stray dog, was found on a base in Kunar province in Afghanistan and adopted by U.S. soldiers.Karen Russo/ABC News
Athena, a stray dog, was found on a base in Kunar province in Afghanistan and adopted by U.S. soldiers.

I fell in love with Lily the moment I saw her. She had a big goofy smile and one of her ears was crooked. We stood in an air-conditioned hallway staring at each other. Then I reached out my hand and leaned over to kiss her -- until a voice from down the hall interrupted.

"The last girl who did that got her face bit off," said the soldier who trained her.

ABC News' Karen Russo with Ike, a dog with a unit in the Nuristan province, Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of ABC News' Karen Russo

I met Lily while I was on assignment for ABC News in Afghanistan in 2009. Lily, the adorable brown and tan Belgian Malinois, apparently didn't like women.

She worked with Special Forces in Afghanistan and was trained to do "secret" things (I assumed she sniffed-out bombs and learned to attack enemy combatants, but her trainer would never reveal her skills).

But when Lily wasn't on missions with the team, she spent much of her time chasing a red ball and, when I was lucky, joining me on long walks at night in Kandahar province.

Even though Lily was specially trained by the military to work with soldiers, her presence in the field -- and that of many other dogs in a war zone -- was in some ways therapeutic. The military does not allow soldiers to have pets in the war zone, but I saw one on nearly every base I reported from in Afghanistan. I've read blogs about dogs who saved soldiers' lives by alerting them to attacks on their bases.

Athena, a tiny mutt found on a base in Kunar province, gave soldiers the affection and comfort they often craved with their families thousands of miles away. She was adopted by a group of soldiers who cared for her during their 12-month deployment.

One of the unit's commanders explained that even though it was against the rules, the dog helped the soldiers get through difficult times.

"The health benefits of having a dog moral-wise is just huge," he said. "I have a lot of soldiers that are very quiet. I can't tell that they okay. But then they'll see the dog and then smile and just light up."

Usually when soldiers complete their tours, local dogs are handed off to incoming teams. Athena was officially adopted by one of the soldiers and now lives in the United States.

Names and units have been withheld for the protection of the U.S. army unit.