She met him while out on a run one morning.
She was new in Kosovo, a U.S. Army sergeant, a medic, rotating through as a member of the peacekeeping force in the region. And him? He'd been wounded, forgotten, abandoned. Was searching for food, a meal, for a little humanity. Someone to care.
For Sgt. Erin Guthrie, 28, of Hillsboro, Oregon, it was love at first sight.
For the dog she came to call Meeka, named for the Albanian word "miqesia," meaning friendship or brotherhood, it was lifesaving.
That the story has a happy ending is in large part due to the efforts of strangers — notably the Nesconset-based Paws of War and its War-Torn Pups program, which jumped through all sorts of bureaucratic hoops to get the 1 1/2-2-year-old shepherd-collie mix to the United States, reunited with Guthrie on Wednesday on Long Island.
"I'm just one sergeant and he's just one stray dog and so many people have devoted their time, come together, devoted their lives [to making this happen]," Guthrie said Thursday, adding: "I'm filled with gratitude."
The rescue is the latest in an ongoing series of animal rescues performed by Paws of War, which since 2014 has saved more than 100 dogs and cats from locations overseas, reuniting them with veterans who'd have otherwise been forced to abandon them forever.
A nonprofit whose motto is "Help A Vet, Save A Pet," Paws is necessary, co-founder Robert Misseri said, due to military regulations that forbid direct contact between service members and animals on foreign soil — and because of the expense and paperwork involved in animal rescue. It took about four months and $6,000 to save Meeka, Misseri said.
"These are people," Misseri said of the veterans helped to date, "who are trained to handle almost anything and everything and yet their hands are tied when they've fallen in love with an animal. They're not allowed to bring them physically onto a base, they're not allowed contact or to travel with it, so they're not allowed to bring them home even at the end of tour. It's all against DOD [Department of Defense] policy."
Part of the Oregon National Guard, in January Guthrie found herself in Kosovo with 1,400 other soldiers, about 140 of them U.S. troops, as part of the ongoing peacekeeping effort in the region. Not long after she arrived, the coronavirus pandemic hit — and she learned her father, a retired firefighter in his 70s, had been diagnosed with cancer.
Then, out on a run, she spotted this dog.
"It's very common to have stray dogs in Kosovo," she said. "There's wild packs of dogs, dogs that have been abandoned, hit by cars. They have a very hard life. I saw him. He had a large wound on his hip, the size of a baseball."
She watched, day after day, and one morning saw him sniffing for food. "I called out to him — and he jumped through razor wire, came to me," she said. "He was so happy and friendly and he actually ran with me for all that day."
But regulations are regulations. Which meant she couldn't touch the dog, couldn't pet him, couldn't allow him on base. Certainly, couldn't treat him.
Sometimes such regulations come with a wink and a nod. Stories about the dogs of war often include literal dogs of war.
Still, Guthrie said: "I could get into real trouble."
So when time came for her to ship home, Guthrie thought that was it.
Daydreaming, she went on line searching for a replacement — and found Paws of War. She contacted Misseri and he promised to rescue Meeka.
It took the efforts of international troops in Kosovo, as well as civilians. But someone found Meeka, got him to a shelter in Kosovo. Paws arranged for a vet, medical treatment, paperwork, and got Meeka to the United States.
"I was worried he wouldn't recognize me," Guthrie said. "But just knowing we're together now, that he's not going to be in harm's way … it's been a huge bright spot for me, a success story for soldiers."