How Dogs Helped One Family Mourn Young Soldier's Death

One family fought to bring their son's dogs home from Iraq.

This was the homecoming the Neesley family had been hoping for, but not the one they wanted most.

Instead of their strapping Army sergeant son Peter, there were two stray dogs Peter had taken in.

Peter's aunt Julia Dean said, "To have them brought back, it's like having part of Peter come home."

On his second tour of duty in Iraq, Peter, of Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich., found two dogs while he was out on patrol. Mama, a Labrador mix and her puppy Boris. He fed them his own rations and even built them a doghouse.

Peter's sister, Carey Neesley, explained, "Peter talked a lot about Mama and Boris. They were his family away from home." Peter would email photos of the dogs to his family, and ask them to send him puppy vitamins and pet toys.

Julia Dean said, "One of the last emails we got was that he wanted to bring the dogs home. We knew he would find a way."

But Peter would never make it home. The 28-year-old died in his Baghdad barracks on Christmas day. The cause of his death is a mystery. His family is still reeling.

"Peter's loss has left a huge hole in my life. A huge hole for my family, for his friends," his sister explained. "It's left a huge hole in the world because he had so much left to give."

To ease their grief, Peter's family worked for weeks to bring his pets home. They reached out to the office of Sen. Carl Levin, D-MI, a ranking member of the House Armed Services committee, and to Gryphon Airlines, which donated the flights into and out of Baghdad.

Rich Crooks, a rapid response manager from the Utah-based Best Friends Animal Society volunteered to take the dogs on their 6,000 mile journey from Iraq to Michigan. He spent days on planes, in hotels and on the road to make this special delivery.

"It touches you on so many levels. The human-dog bond is so strong, and to be able to help this family, I can't even describe it" said Crooks.

The Neesleys said Peter had incredible compassion for those in need, and an uncanny fondness for animals. Even as a child, brought home strays.

Carey Neesley said, "It's second to having Peter come home on his own. It's the next best thing, I guess to having him come home. If we can't have Peter, then at least we can have his dogs."

Now, those strays will help his family heal and remember.