During a routine inspection of the woods near a base in Bavaria, Army Staff Sergeant Dwayne Armour was collecting trash. He noticed a box, opened it up and found a three-month-old German shepherd. He took her home, named her Lucy after his aunt, and fell in love.
Whenever he trains in the field, either he takes the two-year-old dog with him or his neighbors feed her. But the platoon sergeant is about to be deployed to the Middle East and he doesn't have a dog-sitter. "This is going to be a long one, and there's no one really here to watch her," he says. "Everyone's going with me -- the whole division."
Armour asked his brother in St. Louis to take care of Lucy, but his brother wasn't keen on keeping a 75-pound dog. Armour thought about sending her to live with his ex-wife in Germany, but he doesn't think his ex would give Lucy back when he returned stateside.
"As soon as I get back, I have to get her back. I love her. I don't want to leave her," he says. "If I could, I would take her with me."
Running down the last checks before getting his soldiers and equipment ready to ship out, he says he has a lot to worry about -- and one of his biggest concerns is what to do with his dog.
Armour is stationed at Fort Hood, whose 48,000 soldiers make it the largest army installation in the world. The 265-square-mile base is near Killeen, 180 miles northwest of Houston.
Thousands of dogs and cats were killed on American soil during Operation Desert Storm. Soldiers like Armour couldn't find a friend or relative to pet-sit indefinitely, so they abandoned their animals on country roads or dumped them at the pound -- and animals that enter the pound usually don't leave alive.
In 1991, Killeen had a mass slaughter of military pets, says Carmen Wallace, who volunteers at Second Chance, an animal shelter in Killeen.
The Killeen pound "couldn't even hold the pets but a couple of hours," Wallace says. "They were euthanizing them left and right."
To prevent mass mutt murders and keep dogs and cats off casualty lists, Wallace is organizing a foster program. Armour saw it on the news last week; he called and the next day Wallace had several potential foster parents who promise to send him pictures and updates while he's gone.
"Time is getting short. I would never just abandon her," he says. "I was really getting depressed about it. We're getting closer and closer, and I didn't know what I was going to do."
About 100 families from California, Massachusetts and Ohio have volunteered to foster Fort Hood pets. About 30 foster families are from Texas, half of them in Houston.
"We have tons and tons of people that want to foster, and I don't have hardly any folks needing fostering," Wallace says. "I don't know what they're doing with their pets. We're here, we're ready, where are you?"
So far, Wallace has placed pets for only ten soldiers. She's looking to find homes for Lucy and two pit bull puppies (the pups will be more of a challenge because they aren't neutered and the owner doesn't want them to be).
Most soldiers "don't see themselves returning anytime soon," says Paula Powell, assistant manager of Second Chance. "They're having to give up their pets. But for the most part, the majority would rather have their pets fostered, so when they do return they're able to reunite."
Powell says that soldiers' families often relocate, sometimes to apartments that don't allow pets, or with relatives who already have territorial, unfriendly pets that don't get along with their own fur balls.
Nichole Hanke has volunteered to take care of Armour's dog, Lucy. Her husband is a field combat medic about to be deployed. She has two dogs, two kids and a baby due in October. She lives on base at Fort Hood and is allowed one more dog.
"There's a lot of guys that are having to give up so much that don't have families to leave stuff with," she says. "I can't imagine them having to do it with no one. For something uncontrolled, I didn't want somebody to lose their pet."
Two days after 9/11, Steve Albin launched a national military pet foster program on his Web site, www.netpets.com. Albin, of North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, says he has placed thousands of pets throughout the country and a few in Houston. He's found foster homes for dogs, cats, birds, fish, ferrets, reptiles and even a potbellied pig.
Soldiers shipping out have to pay for the pets' food, treats, grooming and scheduled veterinary visits. If the soldier dies, Albin contacts the closest relative or the executor of the soldier's will. If no relatives want the animal, then the foster home has the option to keep it.
A source of national foster home contacts is available on the worldwide shelter directory at Hugs for Homeless Animals, www.h4ha.org. Group president Rae French says they are highlighting shelters that offer pet placement programs (at deadline, no Texas shelters had been listed).
"We want to have it so people can find very quickly who in their area has this program," French says. "There are a lot of animals being neglected."
Michele Reynolds, executive director of the Beaumont-based Humane Society of Southeast Texas, says she doesn't have the shelter space to foster military pets. "We don't have enough foster homes to foster the animals we bring in every day," she says. "We're always full to capacity." But she plans to speak to the shelter's board to see if they can come up with an idea on how to handle the military pets.
Raymond Harris, veterinarian for Houston's Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care, says BARC hasn't had a deluge of pets dropped off by soldiers, so it hasn't created a foster program. Neither has the Houston Humane Society or the Houston SPCA.
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Houstonian Yvonne David, operations manager for Special Pals, who calls herself the "leader of the pack," doesn't want to set up foster homes -- she wants to find permanent homes for military pets. She asks soldiers to relinquish custody of their cats or dogs, saying it will be better for the pets.
She says she can save more pets if she can place them permanently, since civilians see adopting a military pet as helping the cause -- like buying war bonds. So far, she's received only a couple of calls from soldiers, and they all had big dogs (she takes only dogs weighing less than 20 pounds). She referred those callers to breed rescue leagues.
The daughter of a Marine Corps drill instructor, David tells soldiers they might not return -- and she wants their pets to have stable homes. If a soldier dies, she says, the dog could be bounced around from foster home to foster home and she wants to do what's best for the beast.
"I say, 'Look, guys, be realistic,' " David says. "When you go off to war, you don't know how long you're going to be, or, unfortunately, if you're going to come back or not."