Carey Neesley considered her younger brother, Peter, her best friend, and as a single mom, she relied on him as a father figure to her nine-year-old son, Patrick. From his Army base in Iraq, Peter called and e-mailed as often as he could. He’d befriended a stray dog and her puppy, he said, and named them Mama and Boris, the latter for a friend who’d been killed. Because no dogs were allowed inside the base, he built a house for them outside its walls, and he was determined to find a way to bring them back to Michigan when his tour ended. But on Christmas Day, 2007, Neesley answered the world’s most dreaded knock on the door: “We regret to inform you …” Here’s what happened in the days that followed, amid a flurry of media interest in a fallen hero:
We receive word from the Army that Peter’s body will come home to us on New Year’s Eve. We are to go to the airport, accompanied by police escorts. Our immediate family, some of our extended family, and two of Peter’s best friends meet up and take seats in two limos. As we embark on the cold, quiet ride to the airport, rain pelts the tinted windows, and it feels as though all the light has been squeezed out of me.
At the airport, we are escorted to the tarmac, where a straight-backed honor guard waits. Above us, we hear the thunder of an incoming plane.
Swarms of passengers are peering through the terminal windows at our family. Though I’m sure they are trying to be respectful, I resent having to live out a very painful, private moment in front of an audience, with my unfathomable grief on display.
Peter’s flag-draped casket emerges from the dark hold under the plane, and the honor guard carries it to the hearse. Together, we watch the doors close, sealing Peter inside.
At the funeral home, I am the first to sit with Peter’s body. I slowly approach the casket, closing my eyes, squeezing them tight and hoping that when I open them, this will all turn out to be a mistake. I pray to see someone else in there, someone who is not Peter. Instead, when I open my eyes, I am granted and denied my wish all at once. The body lying there is Peter’s body, but it is not Peter. It looks, somehow, simultaneously just like him and nothing like him. I know then for the first time that this is real, and I fall against the casket, putting my head on his still chest and crying into his uniform. He looks so handsome, so young, so full of promise—all the things that he is. I have to correct myself now: the things that he was.
After 15 minutes or so alone with Peter, I try asking his spirit for the strength I will need to get through this next part: allowing Patrick to see Peter’s body. As a parent, you’re never prepared for your child to suffer. Since Peter’s death, Patrick has had terrible insomnia. He thinks that if he falls asleep, he might die like Uncle Peter. No matter how many times I try, I can’t seem to get through to him that he will be fine, that he will wake up in the morning. And really, I don’t blame him. Who can make promises anymore? But I have to be strong for Patrick.
I wipe my eyes, straighten my hair, and go out to meet him, taking his tiny hand in mine as we step up to the casket. “This is Uncle Peter’s body,” I say, trying not to choke on my words. “His soul and his spirit are free now.”
Patrick cries—unstoppable, unflagging tears. I tell him that I know with all my heart that Peter is with us and that he’ll never have to leave us again, even though he has left us forever.
Friends and family come over in droves to help put together picture boards for the memorial service. As we’re going through the photos, we start talking about something so obvious that I can’t believe we’ve overlooked it: What should we do about the dogs? I take a break from the picture boards to contact anyone I can get ahold of on Peter’s old base. A few of his friends reassure me that they’ve been taking care of the dogs. The soldiers—Dan Haynes, Erik Torres, and Mark Hookano, who have already put their lives on the line to serve their country—continue to write me over the coming weeks to update me. They also tell me how much they miss Peter. He was the heart of the group’s morale, they say, a constant source of humor and music and love. For them, the dogs are a connection to the brother they’ve lost too.
They send pictures of themselves playing fetch with Boris, trying to finish teaching him the trick that Peter had been working on. The stubborn puppy can’t quite get it, always grabbing the tennis ball and running away.
But I know that soon the unit will come home, leaving the dogs behind. The military cannot and will not support soldiers bringing back animals from war zones. How can I get those dogs home?
Together with my aunt Julie and my cousins Sarah and Terrie, I start to hatch a plan. We can turn the interest from the media to our advantage.
I return a few calls from local reporters, explaining that we are willing to speak with them under one condition: The story has to focus on getting Peter’s dogs home. Soon, our living room is humming with cameras and cables. The interviews are emotionally excruciating, but there’s no other way to get the word out, so I grit my teeth and bear it. The local segments are picked up by national syndicates. Mama and Boris’s story runs on CNN’s news loop for a 24-hour period. I get calls from relatives and friends, excited that they’ve seen me on national television. I turn on the TV and sit in shock, watching myself talk about my family, my brother, and bringing Mama and Boris home to stay.
We’ve chosen the Grosse Pointe War Memorial as the site of Peter’s public service. Since we don’t belong to any particular church, it seems the most fitting place—spiritual, simple, and respectful. Patrick squeezes my hand as the cavernous service hall fills with hundreds of people: veterans, families of departed soldiers, families of soldiers still overseas, friends, family, neighbors, and strangers. I think about how sad it is that Peter, who always wanted to make a difference but never thought he was good enough, couldn’t see the crowds aching to tell him how good he really was.
We take our seats, and I listen to Air Force Chaplain Lt. Col. Harold B. Owens begin the readings with the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals. Next he recites the U.S. Soldier’s Creed, the promise of service that Peter made in his life and now would continue to fulfill in death, standing in memory as a guardian of freedom.
Then it’s my turn to take the podium. Behind me, the winter winds ripple Lake St. Clair, and through the large windows, the stormy skies cast a pallor on everyone.
“Peter was my best friend; he was my touchstone,” I say. “Peter was there for every important moment, every transition. He was there when my son was born … Patrick was the light in his eyes, and he is Patrick’s hero …”
I speak of how loyal and protective Peter was, how compassionate and courageous. “Peter befriended so many and would move mountains to try to make things just a little easier for them … This was true of people and animals. And he would fight for them forever.”
I make a promise to Peter to continue this fight, my resolve to bring Mama and Boris home strengthening even as, on the surface, I float further away from myself. “The world seems a little less bright now … I have to believe that someone or something must have needed him pretty badly to take him away from us. There are moments when I am overcome with grief, there are moments when I am angry, and there are times when I’m just numb, and I wander the world in complete disbelief that he isn’t coming home. But he has a new home now, and I am confident that he is in the arms of his grandparents and all the soldiers and friends who left before he did.”
I leave the mourners with some parting words. “I think that what he would want you all to take away from this tragic end is to appreciate every day you are given. He would want you all to go on and become the best person you can be, to chase your dreams. He would want you to appreciate every sunrise and sunset. Every star lit at night. He would want you to tell the people who are important to you that you love them. He would want you to reach out to those in pain and offer them a hand. We were so blessed to have had him in our lives, as brief as it may have been.”
After a few more moments, I sit down, not even feeling the chair underneath me.
After the funeral, I stumble around like a newborn foal, confounded and a little in awe of everything. How am I going to live my life now? Still, I have responsibilities. I am determined to be a good mother. And each day, I drive to my job helping hospice patients, some of whom have lived through more grief than I could ever imagine.
I also worry every day about my mission: bringing home the dogs. I feel like I’m in over my head, not sure of what to do next. There is no road map for taking animals out of an active war zone.
But the media interviews continue. My cousin Sarah sets up a website with pictures of Peter and the dogs, and through it, we receive e-mail after e-mail offering sympathy, prayers, donations, and suggestions.
I write often to the soldiers who have been taking care of Mama and Boris. Clearly, this is no easy task; Mama and Boris are feral. Even when Peter was there to look after them, they would fend for themselves on the city streets all day before returning to their house outside the base walls at night. Sometimes, the soldiers say, days go by between sightings of them. Several times a day, I reach out into the universe, searching for someone to listen to my prayer to keep these dogs safe. They are all I have left of my brother.
I’m so thankful for my aunt and cousins, who can take over the e-mail account if I need them to, or help me field phone calls. Some hot leads fizzle out. One woman in Baghdad seems to be on board, only to leave us in the lurch. But failure isn’t an option. If one person can’t help me, I resolve to find another who can.
One day, word comes from Dan, Erik, and Mark that Mama showed up under Peter’s trailer. That she found a way to sneak into the locked base is the first thing I can’t quite wrap my mind around. The other is the uncanny coincidence that, the more I think about it, seems less and less like a coincidence at all and more like a homing instinct set deep inside her heart. Mama had never been to Peter’s trailer and had no way of knowing that it was his; nothing was there to distinguish it from all the others save for whatever lingering remnants of Peter’s scent remained.
The soldiers report that they can’t get her to come out; it’s as though she’s in mourning. She won’t accept food for seven or eight days, until finally, she shakes the dust off her legs and returns to her puppy outside the base.
One day, I log on to my e-mail to find a new tip: “If anyone can get this process moving, it’s the Best Friends Animal Society in Utah.”
I quickly find the Best Friends website, full of testimonials from people who’ve been helped by this worldwide rescue network. Soon I’m in contact with Rich Crook, Best Friends’ rapid response manager.
Rich is a kind, gentle man who had a long career as a firefighter before moving to Utah to work with Best Friends. He offers to help me, and although he’s never done this before either, he creates a list of the daunting logistical steps. We’ll need security clearance to get on the base and get the dogs. We’ll also need a vet in Iraq to clear the dogs for crossing the border and a transportation team to get them there. Then we’ll need an airline that can fly into and out of Iraqi airspace. This is a big problem, because animals are not allowed on military planes, and we don’t know of any civilian airlines cleared to make the trip. With no direct flights from Iraq to the States, we’ll need one airline to take the dogs to Kuwait, and then another to fly them to Washington, D.C., where they’ll have to stay in quarantine before making their journey to Michigan.
“Are you up for this?” Rich asks me. I don’t even need to think about my answer.
Still, it’s hard not to get discouraged, especially since there’s no accounting for all of the horrible ways that things could go wrong. My mind turns to a dark place, thinking about how the universe hasn’t been too kind to me and my family lately.
But sometimes there is unbelievable light. One bright ray comes in the form of John Wagner, the vice president of Gryphon Airlines, who e-mails me after seeing one of the news stories.
Gryphon Airlines, John explains, transports cargo and contractors for the military and other defense companies. They are the only civilian airline allowed into or out of Iraq. John makes it clear that he will do whatever he can to get those dogs out of there, free of charge. My jaw drops when I read that. To know that such generosity is coming to me from someone I didn’t even know existed is humbling. Suddenly, we can cross flying into and out of Iraq off our list.
The road is still a long one, but I rest a little easier that night, knowing that two angels from nowhere have appeared to help light the way.