Walking in the dark toward the scene of an Apache helicopter attack against a team of insurgents, Sgt. Dison Ittu looked down and saw something that might help the days go by a little faster on his yearlong deployment to Afghanistan.
The tortoise at his feet looked like just the right kind of pal to share with his platoon in C Troop, 1st Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment from Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
The 25-year-old soldier stooped down and made room for the reptile in a pack. He kept it with him through the night as he and others scoured the ground for insurgent bomb-making materials.
The mission ended with an unsavory task. Ittu and other American and Afghan soldiers would have to carry an insurgent’s corpse back to their base. “Terry the terrorist turtle” made the walk, too.
“So he has lots of combat experience now,” Ittu joked.
Terry was worth the lift to Ittu’s platoon. He became a mascot for the group at Forward Operating Base Wolverine.
Soldiers bring him vegetables and fruits from the dining facility here, and pluck desert plants to pad Terry’s living quarters in a large plastic trunk.
“Pets definitely help during a deployment,” Ittu said. “They keep your mind off dumb stuff.”
The Army recognizes the peace an animal can give to deployed soldiers, and it has combat stress units stationed around Afghanistan that sometimes circulate among the ranks with specially trained dogs. Some of the canine stress units prepared for their missions out of Lewis-McChord, and veterans remembered being overwhelmed by soldiers who were eager to play with dogs in Iraq.
The idea is to give soldiers a mental break from their routines or from difficult experiences.
“Guys lose sight of the big picture. They think this is their whole life even if they have just a few weeks before they go home,” said Sgt. Michael Howell, 22, a behavioral health specialist assigned to a combat stress team at another base here in Zabul Province.
“Sometimes they need to remember there’s more to them. It could just take talking to someone outside the unit,” he said.
On a past deployment to Iraq, Ittu and other soldiers adopted a feral dog. They kept it as long as they could, but the mutt eventually made himself unwelcome by defecating in the soldiers’ living area.
Afghan dogs look less adoptable than ones in Iraq. Dogs here appear to be valued as fierce guards. They’re tall and big-chested, and they below with a deep and threatening woof. Often, Afghans clip their ears and tails to make their dogs better fighters, as seen at some of the Afghan National Army outposts in this province..
Iraqis by custom tend to neglect or dislike dogs. Canines there were lean, mangy and sometimes maimed. Ittu has noticed the difference, too.
Terry the Turtle was a surprising find in the barren landscape of Zabul Province. Sometimes, hawks can be seen soaring overhead. Most of the time, the only animals soldiers here see are the warning signs for scorpions and vipers that decorate this base.
Terry’s unlikely to present the problems Ittu’s past Iraqi dog posed for his unit. The tortoise peaks its head over its box, likely looking for a way back to the desert from which he came.
“How’s Terry doing?” Ittu asked while he played a game of pickup lacrosse with his platoon Tuesday afternoon.
Terry was almost in the middle of the game, and soldiers leaped over him to get to the ball.
“He’s OK, he’s looking for you,” another soldier told Ittu.