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Dogs on Deployment | Winter 2015 Out Here Magazine

By David Frey

Photography by John McCoy

When Lt. Junior Grade James McCullen deploys from his San Diego naval base to points unknown, his dog Axle is deployed, too.

The four-year-old pit bull ships off to Los Angeles and decamps with Donovan, a 10-year-old Labrador-terrier mix who treats him like a younger brother, and with Carla and Jon Mead, who take Axle into their home while McCullen is out at sea.

“I think he likes it there better than being home in San Diego,” McCullen joked by email from aboard the USS Dewey while his dog was sharing floor space with Donovan.

The Meads are volunteers with Dogs on Deployment, a national nonprofit that helps members of the military find responsible pet boarders when their military commitments call them away from home. Since it started in 2011, Dogs on Deployment has helped service members find temporary homes for more than 700 pets who might otherwise have to say a permanent goodbye to their uniformed companions.

As the name suggests, most of the pets are dogs, but cats, chickens, ferrets, parrots, snakes, turtles, and iguanas have all appeared on the website that links pet owners with temporary foster homes.

“I really consider it like a kind of dating site for military pet owners,” says Alisa Sieber-Johnson, co-founder and CEO of Dogs on Deployment.

Sieber-Johnson got the idea for the organization when both she, a Marine pilot, and her husband Shawn Johnson, a Navy helicopter pilot, were deployed simultaneously to different destinations. Her father agreed to watch their parrot Kiki, but nobody was stepping up to take care of JD, the exuberant Australian shepherd whom Sieber-Johnson calls her “soul puppy.”

Before a distant relative agreed to help out, they were facing a boarding bill of several thousand dollars for every month they were away.

“We both consider ourselves responsible pet owners and we thought we would always have a plan in place and we didn’t,” Sieber-Johnson says. “If we were in that situation, we knew that a soldier who was single would have to be in that situation. We started looking into it and realized it was an issue.”

The couple launched a basic website and a bootstraps operation and built it into a national nonprofit with a staff of 25, with local chapters across the country and a sophisticated website that allows military pet owners and interested boarders to post profiles and find a good match.

New Friends

Axle and McCullen found Donovan and the Meads via the website. McCullen was bound for the Gulf of Arabia. Searching the web for help with Axle, he found Dogs on Deployment and signed up.

Carla Mead had created a profile, too, as an interested boarder. She had seen a Facebook post about Dogs on Deployment and became intrigued. She was used to fostering rescue animals, and as the daughter of a Vietnam War veteran, she was a big military supporter.

“This organization basically marries the two things I’m passionate about,” she says.

When she saw Axle’s profile, she became concerned. McCullen would be shipping out in a few months, and he still had no place to board his pit bull — a breed she worried might have a hard time finding a home.

She contacted McCullen by email and arranged for humans and canines to get together. They hit it off.

“It felt like a friendship before I even met them for the first time,” McCullen says.

For the eight months McCullen was away, Carla and Jon emailed photos and videos so he could keep in touch with Axle while he was gone.

“There were some rough days through deployment, but when I got one of those emails, it never failed to brighten my day,” McCullen says.

When he came stateside and showed up at the Meads’ home to reunite with Axle, Carla and Jon fitted the two dogs with star-spangled bandanas and set Axle running to greet him while local TV crew captured the tearful reunion.

Now that McCullen is at sea again, Axle and Donovan are together again.

“We joke that this is like camp for Axle,” Mead says.

The personal connection with service members — and the canine connection with their dogs—is what keeps her volunteering, she says.

“I wanted to do something that I knew directly helped a military service person, not just mailing in a check,” says Mead, who now heads up the Los Angeles chapter of Dogs on Deployment.

Volunteers like her are what make the organization work, Sieber-Johnson says. Pet owners remain responsible for the expenses and vet bills while they’re away, but foster families like the Meads offer up their homes and their hearts for pets on deployment. For members of the military with pets, it can be an important piece in helping them serve their country. “I am so grateful for everything they have done,” McCullen says. “I feel forever indebted.”