By Master Sgt. Ryan Matson, 652nd Regional Support Group
HELENA, Mont. — Two American Soldiers returning from Poland were able to bring very special souvenirs from the country back to the U.S. with them.
Something of the four-legged variety, going by the names of Mimi, Moose, Pepper and Cinnamon.
Sgt. Corina Kimball, and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Matthew Anderson, both recently returned from a year deployment to Poland with the 652nd Regional Support Group, an Army Reserve unit from Helena, Montana, and brought the first pairs of military rescue dogs from Poland home with them.
“I’ve been deployed four times,” Kimball said, as she gave treats to the newest members of her family, Pepper and Cinnamon.
“Every time you go on a deployment and there are some dogs that you’re around, it just makes it easier. In Iraq and Afghanistan, you couldn’t necessarily rescue those dogs, so when I learned I might be able to help these two, it was great. Plus, I’ve always had dogs and one passed away while I was gone, so this was very special.”
The 652nd was in charge of running daily base operations for 11 base camps throughout Poland during their year there. The bases are owned by the Polish, but house American Soldiers. The dogs that Kimball and Anderson rescued came from Trzebien and Karliki base camps, two of the most remote sites the 652nd managed.
Pepper and Cinnamon showed up at Trzebien but were extremely skittish and did not trust people. Lt. Katy Choi, another animal lover with the 652nd from Portland, Oregon, who was in charge of running the Trzebien base camp, fed the dogs and Staff Sgt. Joel Brown, her assistant at Trzebien, built the dogs a house so they could get out of the harsh weather. The dogs had been stray for quite a while, according to the few people who lived on the base camp.
Kimball first saw Cinnamon and Pepper when she spent a month and a half at Trzebien helping prepare the base camp as a restriction of movement site for Soldiers coming into the country to quarantine before moving to their final destination in Poland.
Kimball and Anderson re-deployed to Fort Hood, Texas, toward the end of July and spent two weeks in quarantine there. Kimball returned to her home in Great Falls, Montana, and Anderson to his home in Bellingham, Washington, on August 2. Kimball drove to Seattle, Washington, to reunite with Pepper and Cinnamon the next day. Choi made sure she was also there for the moment.
“It felt unreal to see them again in the states!” Choi recalled. “I was overjoyed to see those two pups. The last few weeks before leaving theater, I wasn’t sure if we were going to be able to successfully fly them to the U.S. We were running out of time in the end, but it was a miracle that we were able to get them to Montana!”
“It was about 3:30 when the dogs were finally released,” Kimball said. “Of course, there is a customs check and some documentation that needs to be taken care of with the Center for Disease Control. When they come in, they arrive at this warehouse and all the windows are blacked out except for this little tiny crack and I was looking through it, like, ‘I can see them!’ There was a whole group of dogs being shipped from Europe. They were all super quiet and relaxed.”
“They both definitely recognized us and were very happy.”
In the case of Mimi and Moose, Anderson, who was in charge of running the base camp at Karliki, said he originally resisted interacting with the dogs. The tiny base camp at Karliki sits embedded in some thick forest. It is most known for being the site of a German Prisoners Of War camp during World War II which gained fame as the location where the Great Escape took place.
Anderson first found Moose and Mimi on the base camp in late February.
“I saw the Soldiers letting these two dogs into the gate and I started waving my hands to tell them to stop,” Anderson recalled. “I told them I love dogs, but if you let the dogs in and start feeding them and giving them attention, they won’t go away and that wouldn’t be a problem if we were all going to be here to take care of them. But they’ll be back to being on their own, so it’s probably best that we encourage them to go back to where they came from. That was before I realized they were stray, because from a distance they looked like some neighborhood dogs that had come through.”
Anderson talked to a Polish worker on the camp about the dogs, and soon learned they had been stray for almost a year. The worker had taken pictures of the dogs, and placed them on her Facebook, asking if anyone knew who owned them, but received no response.
The Soldiers listened to Anderson and did not let the dogs on base. Somehow, however, one day they made their way on, and decided to camp out right outside Anderson’s tent. He gave them a little food and fresh water, but sort of regretted doing it. It finally came down to a rainy night in March when Anderson knew he couldn’t resist anymore.
“I was trying not to get too attached to these dogs,” Anderson said. “But toward the end of March, there was a cold, rainy night when I went to check on the gate guards to make sure they were OK.”
Anderson said he asked one of the guards if he had seen the dogs around. The Soldier admitted he had just let the dogs in and gave them some food and let them back out again.
Anderson told the Soldier he had told him not to let them in, and the Soldier said, “I know, Sir, but they looked so cold and wet.” Anderson, of course, understood, and said something like “let’s just not let it happen again.” He then went outside of the gate and whistled. A few seconds later, Mimi came rushing out, full of energy, excited to see him.
But Anderson could not find Moose. He whistled but heard nothing, so he decided to look around. He saw Moose laying in a burrow the dogs had dug in the brush, shivering. Moose lifted his head and looked up at Anderson, who could see he was suffering.
“It was at that point I made the decision I had to do something,” Anderson said. “Moose was not well, he was suffering. He had contracted giardia from drinking whatever water was available and he was emaciated.”
Anderson took the dogs back to one of the tents, and dried them off with his towels, and gave them some food and water. The rest, as they say, is history.
Once Anderson started caring for the dogs, he started sending pictures to his wife, Cristina, who came up with their names Moose and Mimi. In traveling around the base camp, Anderson learned that a group of Soldiers had encountered the dogs wandering around near the railhead, and had nicknamed Mimi “Sergeant Morale,” for lifting their spirits. He said that her full name is now Sgt. Mimi Morale, while Moose is strictly Moose.
“My wife was the catalyst,” Anderson said. “She changed my mind to doing something more. She said, ‘Who is going to take care of them when you come home? You can’t just leave them, you have to bring them home.’”
From there Cristina started researching rescue groups on the internet and came across Guardians of Rescue in New York City. Guardians of Rescue put Anderson in touch with one of their representatives who had helped service members rescue dogs from war zones in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, the more developed country of Poland. The representative reached out to some of his contacts, and soon a plan was in place to get Mimi and Moose home.
Meanwhile, Anderson, who worked only a short drive from Kimball’s base camp at Zagan, shared the information with Kimball, which led her to the nonprofit group Paws of War, who aided Pepper and Cinnamon’s rescue.
It took a coordinated effort from a lot of people to bring the dogs home. First, the dogs were seen by a Polish veterinarian in Wroclaw, Dagna Ross. Ross gave the dogs shots and tended to their general health. Ross and her husband, Stefan, even boarded Anderson’s dogs for a month before they left for the United States. Anderson said he has become close friends with all of the people involved, in the U.S. and Poland, to make the rescue possible.
“Dagna is a wonderful person, I can’t thank her enough for all she did to help make these dogs part of my family,” Anderson said. He said he stays in touch with her and Stefan and recently sent them some allergy medicine that is not available in Poland for use at her clinic.
“In Poland, finding a home for stray dogs is problematic, so I’m happy that Mr. Anderson and Ms. Kimball decided to take them and offered them a safe and lovely new home,” Ross said. “I hope to keep receiving updates on their well-being every now and then!”
After the dogs were treated by Ross, Kimball and Anderson started to work with Paws of War and Guardians of Rescue to go through the process of bringing the dogs home.
The dogs had to be boarded for 28 days in Poland before they could fly to the U.S. It was also expensive, but Kimball and Anderson were happy to pay the initial vet bills and flight tickets, much of which was reimbursed by Paws of War and Guardians of Rescue.
Now, all four dogs are adjusting to life in the U.S. Anderson received Moose and Mimi August 6. Cinnamon and Pepper have gone from being hyper and skittish, to completely relaxed and at home in Montana. Meanwhile, in Washington, Mimi likes to kayak, and Moose just wants to eat.
“He’s a big teddy bear,” Anderson said. “He really just wants attention and wants to be fed.”
Anderson added that Mimi has become best friends with his 7-year-old pitbull rescue Coco. Meanwhile, Bella, Anderson’s other tiny rescue dog, has befriended the large dog Moose.
Both Kimball and Anderson said they couldn’t have a better reminder of their time in Poland.