Marine Protects An Underdog, Literally

Almost any Marine who fought in a place like Fallujah will admit it is a life-changing experience. But chances are no one's life there changed the way Lt. Col. Jay Kopelman's did about two years ago, CBS News correspondent Richard Schlesinger reports.

Kopelman is retired now and every day he sees a reminder of his time in combat. But it's a pleasant memory.

Lava was a 5 month-old puppy - part German Shepherd, part who knows what - when Kopelman met him in Fallujah. And before long, he fell in love.

"Lava wouldn't take no for an answer, and still doesn't. Lava just wormed his way in," Kopelman says.

Rescuing Lava became Kopelman's secret mission. It was a secret because regulations say clearly, no pets are allowed. But Kopelman was just months from going home and could not leave Lava behind.

"The plan was to put him in a crate, put him on a plane and he would come home to the United States. But it wasn't as simple as that, in practice," Kopelamn says.

Kopelman had to organize a secret cadre of Marines, reporters, and Iraqi civilians who tried repeatedly to smuggle Lava to safety. Once they considered driving him to Kuwait, but that didn't work. Neither did a plan to sneak him across the border into Jordan.

Meanwhile, he had to hide the dog. At one point, Lava was stashed with the Marines guarding the Commanding General himself. Kopelman says he doesn't think the General even knew about this.

"To the best of my knowledge he didn't," Kopelman says.

Kopelman was running out of time, searching for anyone who could help, anyone who understood the bond between a soldier and a puppy.

"Lava adopted Jay just as much as Jay adopted Lava," Ken Licklider says.

Licklider trains dogs for the military and, more importantly, transports them into and out of Iraq.

"We understood what that dog meant to that GI. It was not even a question," Licklider says.

So after five months of work, Lava, the stray mutt, was hidden among some of the most elite dogs in Iraq, flown out of Baghdad and re-united with Kopelman.

"I may not have saved a child. I may not have saved an adult, but at least I saved something," Kopelman says.

Kopelman has just written a book about the mission that changed his life, a mission he says is not that different from what Marines always do. He says it's about protecting the underdog, and he doesn't mean that as a pun.
  • Melissa McNamara

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