"Touchdown" was the first celebratory word in an e-mail Marsha Cargo received from her son Maj. Brian Dennis, after a dog who survived a 70-mile Hail Mary trek through war-torn Iraqi deserts touched down safely in Chicago Wednesday evening.
"We're thrilled," Cargo told ABC News after the dog named Nubs arrived in the United States to a warm reception. "What would the alternative be? We thought this dog was going to be shot."
Waiting for the animal, which Dennis and his unit befriended during months of patrolling Iraqi forts along the border of Iraq and Syria, were a steak dinner and strawberry Pop-Tarts — the latter a treat that had become a favorite of the dog during visits by the Marine unit.
Nubs, a wiry German-shepherd-border-collie mix named for nubby ears that were sliced off as a puppy, will stay in Chicago with the family of one of his Marine colleagues until a final hop to San Diego, where a Marine fighter pilot stationed at Camp Pendleton has been given permission to care for the dog until Dennis arrives home from his second combat tour.
The reunion could happen as early as next month, Cargo said.
The dog arrived in the United States by way of Jordan after Dennis navigated the bureaucracy and expenses of transporting the animal out of Iraq, a process that required a series of necessary vaccinations and risky handoffs.
The 36-year-old Marine, trained as a fighter pilot and stationed in Miramar, Calif., befriended the animal during several visits to a fort where Nubs lived with a pack of wild canines as the alpha dog. Dennis recently bid what he thought would be a final farewell to the animal after his unit was relocated 70 miles from Nubs' home fort.
He may have wanted to take Nubs with the unit, Dennis wrote in one e-mail home, but there were too many dogs to rescue and keeping a canine was against the rules.
Two days later, Nubs wandered inexplicably in below-freezing conditions into Dennis' new camp, shocking the Marine unit. "I won't even address the gauntlet he had to run of dog packs, wolves, and God knows what else to get here," Dennis wrote of the animal's trek. "When he arrived he looked like he'd just been through a war zone."
"Uh, wait a minute, he had," Dennis wrote.
The miracle moment cemented Dennis' course of action — he had to find a way to return the animal to the United States, a feat he can now say was successfully accomplished.
Nubs is not the only dog befriended by an American soldier to earn a trip out of Iraq.
The SPCA International, in partnership with ILoveDogs.com and through the Operation Baghdad Pups program, is working to make bringing soldiers' dogs home from Iraq less complicated. The program was launched in December, when a military unit contacted the animal awareness group about a dog named Charlie that the group had found as a vulnerable puppy during a night patrol.
After thousands of dollars were spent to arrange for the dog's safe return, Charlie arrived in Washington, D.C., last week, where he waits to be matched up with a new handler until the unit's return from Iraq, according to Stephanie Scroggs, a spokeswoman for SPCA International.
In the next few days, the organization hopes that two animals will arrive at John. F. Kennedy International Airport — Liberty and K-Pot — both of whom were born in Iraq and granted temporary status as security dogs while arrangements were made to bring them here.
Scroggs acknowledged that both are more accurately "mascot" puppies and are not truly performing security detail, but without the designation, the animals could not stay on with military units.
"Both of these dogs have just become a joy," Scroggs said, adding that one will live with the wife of a soldier and the other will live with a soldier's sister until the respective units come home. "Just the knowledge that [these soldiers] have a companion while serving in Iraq." The program has already screened requests from about 25 different dogs, according to Scroggs.
Army Sgt. Peter Neesley found two dogs while on patrol during his second tour of duty in Iraq — Mama, a Labrador mix, and her puppy, Boris.
The soldier claimed the dogs, building a doghouse for them and sending photos to relatives in Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich. "They were his family away from home," Neesley's sister, Carey, told ABC News.
But tragedy struck when the 28-year-old sergeant died in his Baghdad barracks on Christmas, the cause of which remains unknown. His family decided one way to ease the grief would be to transport the dogs home. A politician, airline and animal organization helped coordinate the 6,000-mile trip.
"It's second to having Peter come home on his own," the soldier's sister said. "If we can't have Peter, then at least we can have his dogs."
Dennis, who wrote in detailed e-mails to family and friends about wanting to walk with Nubs along the sunny beaches of San Diego, remains grateful to everyone who helped him rescue Nubs. Already, the collective work earned the Marine recognition from the animal rights group PETA.
"I'm just glad Nubs is going to the states," the Marine wrote in an e-mail to ABC News.