With tail wagging and pink tongue flopping out the side of his mouth, a jovial pit bull dashed exuberantly toward a grinning young man who waited with outstretched arms.
A happy reunion Sunday in Morgan Hill mirrored Disney’s 1993 remake of “Homeward Bound,” a tear-jerking film about three pets who get lost in the wilderness and are reconciled with their family.
It’s a similar situation for Lance Cpl. Jonathan Contreras – only he was separated from his canine companion by 8,000 miles of ocean, desert and seven months.
“Honestly, I don’t think I’ve been more happy to be back. I was a little bit worried he might be estranged. But it turns out he’s very loyal,” said the 20-year-old San Diego native, glancing down at his four-legged best friend.
Looking festive in a camouflage-printed rhinestone collar, the brindle-colored dog (aptly named “Diego”) contentedly blinked a pair of glassy, hazelnut-hued eyes at his human counterpart.
The handsome 2-year-old pit bull was previously shuffled between several caretakers over the course of four months while Contreras – stationed overseas since Aug. 26, 2011 on his first deployment in Afghanistan – fretted over the doggie buddy he’d left behind.
His father couldn’t care for Diego and his mother died when Contreras was young, shrinking the pool of candidates who could provide the person-loving pooch with a stable, temporary living situation.
“It was very stressful for me,” recalled Contreras, whose close bond with Diego is founded on a mutual love for running on the beach, staying active and cuddling. “I had him since I was a pup, and didn’t want to give him away that easy.”
The ensuing effort to lend a U.S. soldier a hand – a sort of “underground railroad” that eventually connected complete strangers in Gilroy, Morgan Hill, San Diego and Florida – blossomed into something much more permanent.
“You as one person may not be able to fix it alone, but working in a chain where we each play a part – the reward that we got is family; a bonus,” said Morgan Hill resident Susan McPhee, who along with her husband Hugh McPhee coordinated and hosted a reunion barbecue Sunday at Uvas Reservoir.
A United States Marine Corps flag, which Hugh strung up on a nearby tree above a picnic table in honor of Contreras’ March 26 homecoming, fluttered in the afternoon breeze. Several motorcyclists relaxing nearby strolled over to shake Contreras’ hand and thank him for his service.
“Jon is like our son,” said Susan, throwing an arm around his neck. “We love him.”
The story of a displaced Southern California pit bull who came to live in Gilroy spawns from a mutual love of dogs, coupled with an intense conviction to aid America’s servicemen and servicewomen in whatever ways possible. These common denominators weave together a group of people who now consider themselves “family.”
“For me, it was such a tiny little offering to ensure that I have the freedoms that I have,” said Judy Malone, whose 9.5-acre property on Ferguson Road in Gilroy served as Diego’s foster home for the last three months. “To wake up tomorrow morning and still see that American flag waving in the air. This is nothing compared to what (Contreras) has to do.”
The chain of events ignited shortly after Contreras left for Afghanistan. His 18-year-old sister, Brittany Contreras, found herself in a living situation where she was unable to take care of her brother’s dog. Desperate to avoid the last resort of taking Diego to the pound, Brittany posted a plea for help on a website “Dogs on Deployment.” This licensed nonprofit provides a central online database that allows military members to search for individuals or families who are willing to act as loving doggie foster parents for the length of the owner’s deployment. The service was established in June 2011 by San Jose native Alisa Sieber-Johnson, 24; and her husband, Shawn, 26; a couple who was unable to care for their miniature Australian shepherd while serving in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.
After being deployed for training at the same time and dealing with the emotional anxieties of being detached from their beloved furry family member, the husband and wife recognized the need for a program that could help others in similar situations. Dogs on Deployment has since aided the placing of more than 60 pets, has 300 registered boarders and 6,000 followers on Facebook. Alisa now attends flight school in Florida; Shawn is a helicopter pilot scheduled to come home soon from the Middle East.
“What’s great about our organization is that we’re a network of foster volunteers – not a fostering program,” Alisa explained. “A network really allows people to take an individual action to help one another.”
Brittany’s plea for help was soon noticed by Susan McPhee, who, as the mother-in-law of a Marine currently stationed in Camp Lejeune, N.C., regularly checks the Support Our Troops website (www.supportourtroops.org). The charity service, which provides networking, morale boosting, news and community for military members and their families, posted a link to the Dogs on Deployment website (www.dogsondeployment.org).
Curious to see if there were any California canines who needed temporary boarding, Susan searched the database and found Diego. She then reached out to the Gilroy Gavilan Kennel Club, a local dog breeders/enthusiasts group, and inquired if any of its members would be able to help. Judy Malone is one of several who responded.
“Being a pit bull is a death sentence,” said Malone, a statuesque blond who raises American Staffordshire Terriers.
She underscores a negative “bully-breed” stigma, an “unfortunate” connotation that puts pit bulls at a higher risk of ending up in the pound and getting euthanized. The unpleasant reality drove Malone to take in Diego so that Contreras “could feel comfortable inside and concentrate, and not have to worry that his dog might get put down,” she said. “Distraction isn’t necessary for someone like him who is serving our country.”
The effort to get Diego up to Gilroy is a passing-of-the-baton-type endeavor which saw the McPhees cruising around at 2 a.m. Jan. 10 in search of Jon’s sister, who drove up from San Diego to meet the McPhees in Los Banos.
“She told us she was driving a white truck,” laughed Susan, in retrospect. “Doesn’t everybody?”
When Hugh good-humoredly noted to his wife the ordeal was somewhat “inconvenient,” Susan put things into perspective.
“You know what’s inconvenient?” she replied. “Jon is in a tent in the sand in Afghanistan, and he doesn’t know if he’s going to live or die while he’s serving his country. I really don’t think it’s inconvenient for us to drive down to Los Banos.”
Diego then spent one evening with Gilroyan Nancy Hjelmstad, another member of the Gavilan Kennel Club who volunteered to transport Diego to Malone’s place.
“It was kind of like the underground railroad for pit bulls,” joked Hjelmstad, who was also at the picnic Sunday.
As Susan noted, “this story of strangers helping a man in return for his service to our country” branched organically in a way that ultimately surprised and “blessed” everyone who got involved.
Even Malone’s dog food supplier, Dog Lovers Gold, chipped in by donating Diego’s food free of charge to Malone.
Following the anticipated reunion Sunday wherein Diego galloped down the concrete boat launch at the Uvas Reservoir to greet his human, Diego stood on hind legs to give Contreras some long overdue bear hugs (and kisses).
It was the culmination to a Facebook message sent to Contreras by his sister three months ago, after the McPhees, Dogs on Deployment and several others came to the rescue.
“You can stop stressing out now,” Brittany wrote.
Contreras, who says serving in the military is his “purpose” and “exactly what I wanted to do,” has volunteered to return to Afghanistan in June. His sister is in a more stable living situation and will be able to take care of Diego when the time comes.
When asked if being back with his dog is like being back with family, Contreras grinned with a hint of sheepishness.
“I kind of want to say it’s even better,” he said.
• Founded in June 2011, Dogs on Deployment is a central database for military members to find families and individuals who are willing to board their pets while owners are on deployment. The national organization believes “no pet should ever be surrendered due to a military commitment” or “the hardships of deployments.” DOD serves “all military, all pets.”
• DOD is run by husband/wife team Alisa Seiber-Johnson and Shawn Johnson, two military members who recognized the need for this type of service after they were deployed for training at the same time and had to make sure their “beloved” dog was in good hands. Alisa is from San Jose; Shawn is from Santa Cruz.
• Since its inception, DOD has helped place more than 60 pets, has 300 registered foster boarders and 6,000 followers on Facebook.
• Service members who would like to find a loving foster home for their pet while on deployment, or people wishing to register as DOD boarders, should visit www.dogsondeployment.org, call (619) 800-3631 or email [email protected] for more information.