“Dog is my co-pilot” is a popular bumper sticker encapsulating the bond between man and dog—yet we don’t put dogs in seatbelts. “Why?” I recently asked a friend. “Because it’s just a dog, man,” he retorted.
I was thinking about that as I read Craig and Fred: A Marine, A Stray Dog, and How They Rescued Each Other, by Marine Corps Sgt. Craig Grossi. The book is a harrowing, inspirational tale about Grossi’s experiences as a veteran of Afghanistan and the dog he discovered there and surreptitiously exfiltrated to the United States. Yet I simply couldn’t shake the fact that, regardless of the dog’s many admirable traits, the praise for this animal seems a bit out off kilter. It’s Craig, not Fred, with the story we need to hear.
A Hero’s Tale
Purple Heart recipient Craig Grossi spent almost a year in Afghanistan in 2010 as a Marine Corps intelligence collector and interrogator in the notoriously violent Sangin District of Helmand Province. During his tour, Grossi saw plenty of action, some of which he describes in heart-pumping detail.
Taliban fighters continuously poured down 107 mm rockets and small-arms fire on Grossi’s unit. Grossi barely survived one such rocket attack, which resulted in head trauma and took him out of the battlefield for weeks. He lost multiple close friends, including one courageous soldier, Gunnery Sgt. Justin E. Schmalstieg, who performed a sweep for improvised explosive devices amid a firefight with the Taliban, only to accidentally hit one. His mortal act of bravery likely saved numerous Marines that day.
Grossi describes another particularly heart-wrenching anecdote in which he and other members of his team, positioned in a makeshift fort in rural southern Afghanistan, spied an Afghan couple walking toward their compound in broad daylight—an unusual site, given the surrounding violence. The couple’s determination lightened the Marines’ hearts, until the wife stepped on an IED, blowing her to bits. Grossi and other Marines—taking a serious risk by dropping cover—poured out of the compound to help the shocked husband. Although he is more eager to heap praise on his fellow Marines, Grossi is undoubtedly an American hero.
The book is at its best when Grossi is describing his military service, and what it’s like to return to American from the war zone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Speaking of his experience coming home, he writes, “one of the biggest challenges vets face is this overwhelming sense of isolation—feeling like you’re alone, like no one gets it. For those of us who separated from active duty, it was easy to suddenly find ourselves without direction.”
He explains the effects of war on his post-service suburban life, such as the inclination to assess unusual things on the side of the road as IEDs, pr the fear caused by loud noises like garbage trucks or airplanes. Conversations became like minefields. Grossi recounts, “A simple ‘How are you doing?’ feels loaded. When I first got home from Afghanistan, I resented that.”
I relate to this in spades. After my own deployment to Afghanistan in 2009-2010, it was hard to integrate back into society. Comments from others, even well-meaning ones, grated on me. One old college acquaintance asked me what it was like. I told him it was horrible, that I had lost friends, that I had trouble sleeping at night, that loud, unexpected noises unnerved me. His response, a sympathetic but trite “Thank you for your service,” elicited a desire to slug him in the face.
Another night some friends invited me to watch the movie “The Hurt Locker” about IEDs in Iraq. I knew people killed by IEDs. It was too close to home. With my gut turning into knots and sweat dripping from my pores, I uttered “I can’t do this,” and left. Nobody seemed to get why.
A Friend in Fred
One of the few things keeping Grossi stable after his deployment was his trusty dog Fred, an Afghan mutt he encountered early in his tour. Grossi tried his hand at a fairly typical post-military career doing desk-job intelligence work for Defense Intelligence Agency, settling back into suburban Northern Virginia with his old girlfriend, preparing for marriage and the stereotypical single-family home.
From the outside, everything looked fine. Inside, Grossi was struggling to keep it together. Things fell apart with his fiance, and he entered a sorely needed “reset” period of contemplation.
In those moments, Fred provided stability and inspiration. Fred was the happy-go-lucky dog who kept coming back to Grossi during his deployment. On one occasion, accompanying the Marines on patrol, Fred discovered Taliban IED emplacers. He even impersonated a “bomb-sniffer” dog to avoid discovery while secretly stashed at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand.
Fred provided a way for Grossi to discuss his war experience with civilians in a way both disarming and conversational. It’s clear that Fred served a therapeutic role in Grossi’s recovery from PTSD. That role, in and of itself, is not the problem. It’s more so how the story of Craig & Fred comes at a particularly strange moment Americans’ relationships with their pets.
The Problem with Pets
Dogs have always been viewed as “man’s best friend.” Now, however, they are much, much more. Many owners view their dogs, or other pets, as their children. The number of American households with pets over the last decade has skyrocketed. Many millennials claim pet ownership is good practice for raising children. Americans in 2016 spent a record $62.75 billion on their pets, which includes food, supplies, and medical care, among other things. Many Americans now take their “emotional support” pets everywhere, including on airplanes One passenger tried to bring an “emotional support pig” on board a U.S. Airways flight.
I love dogs. My parents bought me an English Springer Spaniel when I was 10. She died when I was 23, and I wept profusely. But she was still just a dog. Animals are not humans. They are not created in the image of God. We deceive ourselves by pretending otherwise. Real children demand far more from us—more time, more sacrifices, and more emotional and intellectual commitment.
Dogs don’t ask “Why?” They don’t debate bedtimes. They don’t require help with homework. Pets do not require a significant change in our lifestyle or life goals. Alternatively, pets don’t grow up and make us proud; they don’t graduate from college, become mature and responsible contributors to society, or provide for us when we are too old to take care of ourselves. We give something far different to our children that we do to our pets, and our kids receive something far different, as well. Ultimately, pets are not our flesh and blood.
This is what concerns me about Craig & Fred. Grossi and members of his family went far out of the way to get this dog back to the United States. Grossi broke Marine Corps combat regulations, forged veterinarian signatures, and shipped the dog via DHL Express to New York City. There the dog was received by Grossi’s father and sister, who on less than 24-hour notice, drove up from Washington DC to receive the animal.
It’s a compelling story of devotion to an adopted dog. And yet… it’s still a dog. Should such endeavors truly be lauded when there are two million Afghan orphans in need of far more love, attention, and sacrifice? It needs to be said: A single Afghan orphan is worth more than every single last dog in Afghanistan.
Pets Versus People
A close friend and professed cat lover created a “Kabul Cat Committee” to provide cat food for various strays that wandered onto his compound in Afghanistan. He enlisted the help of a number of other people to assist in his charitable efforts. The contrast between the energy spent on Kabul cats, and not Kabul children, was striking. During several years living and working in Thailand, I witnessed the same thing with other Americans. They were deeply invested in stray cats and dogs that wandered the streets of Bangkok, while largely oblivious to the ubiquitous poor people all around them.
As someone who has been advocating for asylum seekers and refugees, particularly those suffering persecution for their Christian beliefs, I find this all a bit disturbing. Yet I can understand. Developing intimate friendships with those in need is not easy. Often there are language barriers. Once you communicate your sympathies to the needy, they begin placing significant, often unrealistic demands on you: constant requests for money, phone calls in the middle of work (or the night), increased attention from other people in similar plights. Having a pet, even a rescue animal, as Grossi recommends to young readers, is far less work.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh or embellishing the problem. Perhaps not. Consider how much love and attention Rachel Ray and her audience lavished on Fred when he and Craig appeared on her show. Grossi almost appears as an accessory to the dog. As much as the story is a riveting tale of heroism, suffering, and resilience, it plays, however unintentionally, into a broader cultural paradigm where Americans fixate an imbalanced amount of attention and money on their pets.
I believe there is far more to Grossi’s story than what we get in Craig & Fred. As the author notes, people have told him for years that he is a thrilling story-teller. I have many questions myself. Instead of dog, what about God? Grossi makes no mention of religious faith. Did that play any role in his war-time experience, or his recovery from PTSD?
It certainly did for me. Or what about Grossi’s frustration with the materialist, success-driven mentality of the urban and suburban millennial generation? The author recounts a cross-country trip he took with another veteran (and Fred). The places he visits and the people he meets seem more authentic than the aspirational meritocratic elite of Washington DC. What does Grossi think Americans should do to avoid various unfulfilling dead ends and find “the good life”? Fred the Afghan dog will not be commenting on such questions. But I’m anxious to hear from Craig.