By John Yang, NBC News correspondent
When soldiers are sent to war, the military provides all sorts of help for those left behind--mothers, fathers, husbands, wives and children. But what about the four-legged family members?
That was the dilemma Staff Sargent Steve Meduna faced in January 2009 as he prepared to go to Iraq for the first deployment in his 15 years in the Minnesota National Guard: What to do about his 100-pound, two-year-old dog, Dozer--as in "bulldozer." Meduna was newly divorced and his father lived in a town home community that doesn't allow dogs, his brother had a small yard without a fence and his friends who had watched Dozer in the past were all guardsmen going to Iraq, too.
Then he heard about Guardian Angels for Soldiers' Pet, or GASP, a five-year-old network of volunteers who take in dogs and cats--and even horses and, in some cases, snakes and lizards--left behind when their owners deploy with the military.
"The pet is not considered or recognized as a family member," says Linda Spurlin-Dominik, a co-founder and the president of GASP. She started the group after hearing of the problems faced by one soldier from Ohio. A little research turned up reports of dogs and cats dropped off at shelters just before deployments or picked up by animal control--abandoned--right after troops leave an area.
"It's a warm feeling," she says of her work. "You've made a difference in someone's life and made their life just a little bit better when they get to see their pet again."
Meduna learned of GASP just before he deployed and happily left Dozer in the care of Mike and Jessie Siers of Big Lake, Minn. "It was a real weight off my back," he says.
The Siers kept Meduna up to date on Dozer with videos and photos posted on Facebook. At Christmas, they sent Meduna a photo of Dozer in a Santa hat--signed with Dozer's inked paw.
They loved having Dozer with them for 13 months, but knew it had to end. They hated to see him go, but, as Jessie said, "We're so happy that Steve made it back safely."
Before going to the Siers' to pick up Dozer, Meduna worried that his dog wouldn't remember him after being away for so long. He needn't have worried. As soon as Dozer caught a glimpse of his master, he bounded to Meduna's side and jumped--and licked--for joy.
After getting reacquainted, Dozer retired to a corner of the Siers' yard with a nylon chew bone that Meduna had brought for him as Meduna and Siers talked. At one point, Meduna turned toward his car to get something out of it. Yards away, Dozer saw him turn, dropped his bone and shot across the yard to Meduna's side.
He wasn't about to let his master get away again.
For more on Guardian Angel for Soldiers' Pets, visit their Web site