In the war-ravaged city of Raqqa, Syria, amidst the ruins of a destroyed school, we were startled by the piercing cries of an infant. While it appeared as a desperate plea for assistance, our experience as bomb disposal experts cautioned us against immediately rushing to the scene. We were aware that ISIS had often employed this sinister tactic of using children’s cries to lure unsuspecting individuals into deadly booby traps. It was February 2018, a mere four months following the liberation of Raqqa by the U.S.-led coalition, yet remnants of ISIS’s malevolence continued to manifest in the countless improvised explosive devices (IEDs) concealed within every building and crevice.
As a former soldier in the Royal Engineers, I had joined a team specifically recruited to clear dangerous IEDs. After a long and exhausting day, we suddenly heard a cry that caught our attention. With caution, we carefully checked our surroundings for any potential tripwires or motion detectors as we approached the source of the sound. It took us a while to realize that the cry was coming from behind a large concrete pedestal. As we lifted it up, we were surprised to find not a Syrian child, but a small Chihuahua who was visibly terrified.
Surrounded by the lifeless bodies of three other puppies and an enormous dog, presumably its mother, this little Chihuahua was the sole survivor of a nightmarish ordeal. Although he appeared to be relatively unharmed, the term “relatively” was crucial here. It reminded me of the countless times I had witnessed the devastating consequences of war throughout my adult life as a soldier. Each day, as we made our way into Raqqa, the evidence of destruction was evident: homes riddled with bullet holes, mass graves, and the tragic sight of young children who had paid the ultimate price for one wrong step.
This trembling puppy, born in the heart of such chaos, serves as a stark reminder of the inevitable and unrelenting nature of war.
The creature before me was predominantly white, with the exception of its dark ears and patches of black and brown on its small, circular head. A layer of dust quivered on its fur, indicating its lack of cleanliness. I reassured the animal, revealing my own fear by confessing, “I’m terrified, too.”
A haunting memory from my early years resurfaced, reminding me of the aggressive Rhodesian Ridgeback owned by my neighbor. Consequently, my apprehension towards this minuscule creature was genuine. Taking precautionary measures, I adorned extra-thick gloves typically used in battle, securing them in place. With the aid of my medical clamps, I carefully handed the critter a biscuit. After contemplating for a moment, it gingerly took a tiny bite. Simultaneously, I gently patted it, ensuring that my hands remained protected by my military-grade gloves.
With an exuberant tone, I exclaimed, “Who’s a good boy, Barry?”. This unexpected display of affectionate language astounded my entire crew, resulting in uncontrollable laughter. Their surprise was evident, given my imposing stature, abundant facial hair, and numerous tattoos. Regrettably, it was soon time for us to return to our camp, situated an hour west of Raqqa. Glancing over, I noticed that Barry still harbored too much fear to allow me to pick him up. Consequently, I bid him farewell with a biscuit and a sufficient supply of water.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Barry,” I said with a genuine hope in my heart, because I could sense that this dog was no ordinary canine companion.
Seeing Barry brought a glimmer of hope into my life, a feeling that had been absent since I left the Army in 2014 after serving rigorous tours in Afghanistan for seven years.
Back in Essex, memories of the horrors I witnessed haunted me, especially the image of a fellow soldier’s disfigured corpse, a victim of Taliban torture after being kidnapped.
Although I now understand that I was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), at that time I felt overwhelmed by the challenges of civilian life, where one problem seemed to pile on top of another.
I was already trying to make a living as a personal trainer when my girlfriend had a miscarriage. Discovering her pregnancy had been a moment of pure joy in my life, but I struggled to provide her the support she needed during her loss. It felt like I was a ticking time bomb, and I turned to heavy drinking. Eventually, we separated, and with nowhere else to go, I found myself sleeping in my van to hide the state I was in from my parents.
The only time I felt a semblance of myself was when I attended the funeral of a friend who was killed while clearing IEDs in Syria in October 2017.
Back at home, people saw me as a failure, but my former comrades knew me as Sean the soldier.
I cherished that identity, so when I was offered my friend’s position in the Syrian team, I needed little persuasion to accept.
I arrived in Syria in January 2018, and it was about a month later when I first encountered Barry. The day after finding him, I returned to the rubble of the school and felt a pang of sadness when he was nowhere to be seen.
As we prepared to drive back to base, I tried to convince myself that I barely knew him and that I had other pressing matters to attend to. But my heart leapt when I heard one of the Syrian team members yelling, “Barry! Barry! Barry!”
Barry had hidden himself away to escape the biting cold winds of the night, and he must have wondered who this persistent stranger was who wouldn’t leave him alone. I was practically stalking him.
For our relationship to progress, I knew I had to take a leap of faith, just as he would have to in trusting me.
Despite the doubts in my mind, I extended my ungloved hand and gently caressed his head. It felt right, and after two more days of similar encounters, he seemed to trust me enough to come with me back to our headquarters.
When I held him in my arms for the first time, he seemed puzzled, as if wondering, “What is this man doing?” But as I looked down at him, I knew he was my little boy and I was his dad. He snored loudly during the ride back to base, finally experiencing a peacefully calm slumber since his birth, knowing that I was there to protect him.
Upon returning to the camp, I carried him into my cozy room and gently laid him on my soft duvet. I decided to let him sleep a little longer and left him to peacefully snore away. When he finally woke up, I leaned in to give him a sweet kiss, but was taken aback. It was clear that he had never experienced the luxury of a shower before, and he definitely did not want one now. I attempted to convince him otherwise by placing him in the sink, which somewhat resembled a miniature showerhead. However, his legs splayed in all directions to avoid what he perceived as a perilous situation. Despite his resistance, the little guy was incredibly fluffy and adorable after his impromptu “shower”. It was during this inspection for any bites or rashes that I discovered Barry was not actually a boy. It was too late for a name change at that point, so I simply switched it to Barrie. Crisis averted.
Later that evening, I decided to introduce Barrie to the local pub. To my surprise, she quickly found a group of volunteers who were eager to be her “other dad”. My friend Digger, a rugged Scotsman with a surprisingly tender side, was particularly thrilled to welcome Barrie into our little circle. He even took the initiative to fashion a small teddy bear out of some rope and old pants for her. He also equipped her with a collar and a military harness, both beautifully embroidered with her name. Digger had previously worked with a charity called War Paws, saving dogs from Afghanistan. Inspired by his work and knowing deep down that I wanted Barrie to become a part of my family, I decided to set up an online fundraiser to gather the £4,500 required for her journey back to England.
For the main photo on the fundraising page, I carefully positioned my military vest on the ground alongside my weapon. I then lovingly placed Barrie inside the vest, allowing her head and paws to adorably peek out from the top.
In just a day, her sheer adorableness managed to elicit nearly £1,000 in donations. While we waited for more funds to trickle in, she became a regular presence at my workplace.
As we embarked on our drives into Raqqa, she would position herself between the seats of our SUV and observe the world passing by with an innocent curiosity.
Her presence proved to be a much-needed source of solace, especially during difficult moments like the day we mourned the loss of Mohammed, a brave soldier of the Syrian Defence Force who fell victim to an IED. That night, as I washed away his blood in the shower block, all I could think of was the comfort of cuddling with Barrie.
“Today was tough, Barrie,” I confessed to her while she lay on her back, her paws reaching upwards as if pleading for affection. Cradling her delicate body in my arms, I felt the burdens of the world melt away.
Each morning, she would wake me up by perching herself on my face. And whenever I sat down to tackle my paperwork, she would meticulously inspect my computer mouse, poised and ready to pounce.
Despite my attempts to maintain discipline, Barrie managed to convert everyone, including our Malaysian cooks, into soft-hearted individuals who happily played by her rules. They even reserved a special dish of delicacies for her every day, with grilled chicken being her favorite. The sight of her approaching would make them squeal with excitement.
Barrie had a unique effect on people, evoking a youthful giddiness in even the toughest of individuals. This was evident when six enormous Navy Seals entered our office one day, looking prepared for battle. I stood up, ready to deliver a firm handshake that matched their serious demeanor. However, their attention was immediately captured by Barrie, and they instantly transformed into caring individuals, each taking turns to shower her with affection. Every day with Barrie was like this, as I shared with my close friend Netty, who I had been training personally for the past three years.
Netty and I had spent a significant amount of time together in England, but our relationship truly deepened when Barrie entered the picture.
Upon coming across a photograph of herself, Netty made the firm decision that she would become her mother. The process of preparing to become parents brought Netty and me closer together, transforming our friendship into a romantic relationship. I eagerly anticipated the moment I could bring Barrie home with me, but unfortunately, we encountered a major obstacle.
During a short visit back home in March for a wedding, I was getting ready to return to Syria when I received the news that our contracts had been canceled due to the deteriorating security situation in the country. All my friends were being sent back home as well. Travel to our previous location was now strictly prohibited, but I was determined to bring Barrie out of there.
Thankfully, we had already exceeded the £4,500 that War Paws had requested, and they made arrangements for Barrie to be smuggled out of Syria and transported to Iraq in a truck. From there, she was placed in quarantine in Jordan, marking the beginning of the long wait for her eagerly awaited homecoming. The wait was estimated to be at least three months, assuming everything went smoothly.
I missed Barrie every single day as I struggled to readjust to civilian life, but her presence in my life prevented me from falling back into the mess I had been before. Being her father gave me the motivation to keep pushing myself, especially as I worked on preparing a home for Netty, Barrie, and myself.
Moving out of my parents’ house was financially out of reach for me, and Barrie couldn’t stay there either since my dad was allergic to pet hair. So, I turned the shed in their backyard into a cozy little cabin that was just big enough for the three of us.
Finally, in October of last year, after a few false starts, we received the long-awaited call informing us that Barrie was scheduled to be on a flight to Paris. Netty and I quickly purchased tickets for the Eurotunnel and traveled the 300 kilometers to Charles de Gaulle Airport to meet her.
Upon our arrival at the airport, we were greeted by distant barks that sounded like a pack of ferocious dogs. I assumed there must have been at least four of them, but to my surprise, there were no more furious canines. The only one causing a ruckus was Barrie, who was confined in a crate and on the verge of losing her sanity.
She wasn’t the adorable little pup I discovered in Syria; instead, she was a fierce and formidable dog. However, I understood that beneath her aggressive appearance, she was simply terrified. I had hoped that she would recognize me when I approached her cage, extending my well-worn T-shirt that had absorbed my scent from a week of wearing it to bed. But to my dismay, she looked at me as though I was crazy and responded with a series of loud barks.
“I don’t think she remembers me,” I quietly muttered to Netty. I had been eagerly anticipating this moment for the past seven months, and now all I felt was a sense of pity.
Fortunately, she became calmer as we made our way to our compact Nissan Micra, the same car she had to squeeze into by maneuvering her head through the space between the two front seats, just like in Syria. As soon as we started driving, exhaustion overcame her, and she dozed off. During a rest stop at a layby a few hours later, she woke up and began affectionately licking my leg. She then playfully slithered across the ground, exposing her belly and stretching out her paws towards me.
It was clear that she wanted to play, and more importantly, she recognized who I was. “Who’s a good girl?” I asked, a phrase I had longed to say for so long. The next morning, as we settled into our converted shed, I let her out to relieve herself. However, she quickly bounded back inside and hopped onto the bed, wagging her tail with unbridled delight as she nestled herself on my chest.
Despite the strain on my lungs caused by her increased weight, seeing her brought a smile to my face. I had envisioned a gentle welcome to her new life, but the publicity we had generated during our fundraising efforts quickly became overwhelming once we were reunited. Our story made headlines in national newspapers, featured on television news, and even earned us an appearance on This Morning. However, getting to the studio almost didn’t happen as it was located on the first floor, and Barrie, who had never encountered stairs before, refused to climb them. So, I had no choice but to carry her up. Barrie now weighed 27 kg, making every step a challenge, but I was willing to go to any lengths for her because that tiny, dust-covered creature I discovered amidst the debris had made such a profound impact on me.
Encountering her was the most remarkable day of my existence. If it weren’t for her, I’m uncertain if I would have ever escaped the abyss of despair following my time in Afghanistan, confronting the atrocities I witnessed as a soldier, or grasping the concept of being a responsible member of society.
Presently, I dedicate part of my time as an assistant paramedic and run a fitness training venture alongside a close friend. Even though there are still instances when anxiety creeps in, I simply shut down my laptop and engage in playful activities with Barrie.
With her by my side, I possess clarity and a sense of purpose. And while many believe that I rescued Barrie’s life, the reality is that she rescued mine.