When people think of military family life, countless associative words or phrases may come to mind, such as “hardship,” “separation from loved ones,” or “travel.” A defining feature of our lifestyle, one that holds us up throughout all of our separations, difficulties, and moves, is the beloved military pet. Chosen to bring the family together, to provide companionship and comfort, the military pet is an essential family member for a vast amount of service families all over the world, but faces challenges not seen by the civilian community and not taken into consideration during difficult duty station moves.
Like the loved ones left behind during training and deployments, our pets endure countless periods of one or more of their human’s absences, having to readjust and cope with the shifting household dynamics. But endure and love endlessly, they do! A significant challenge facing our faithful companions is the overseas duty station moves. It is often not as simple as just buying the correct-sized crate and getting the veterinarian paperwork done. It is an arduous, expensive, stressful navigation that typically turns into a maze of problems to circumvent and the outcome isn’t always in favor of the pet.
Leave No Paws Behind USA was founded in the personal and shared experiences of the difficulties of transporting our military pets overseas. Founder Liz Hensel, USMC veteran and spouse, was first made aware of the difficulties of overseas pet transportation when her family had to relocate to Iwakuni with her service dog and companion, Prince. After connecting with other families, she found a common theme in transporting military pets overseas: a lot of money, a lot of work in very little time, and even more insecurity that our pets either won’t be able to come or may not be able to travel back with us.
On a regular basis, military families reach out, not just seeking guidance or aid, but to share their own experiences. The Bartell family, USMC, told Leave No Paws Behind USA the harrowing story of being separated from their kittens when they were emergency evacuated back to the United States from Uzbekistan. They thankfully had a trusted friend to care for the kittens but it would be a year, several plane rides, and thousands of dollars later before they were reunited and made a whole family again.
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It was my own story that drew me to work with the organization, wishing to spread our mission as far as possible so that others can get the assistance they so desperately need! My husband, a US Marine, received the amazing opportunity to spend 18 months in Luxembourg as a whole family. Our two dogs would remain behind in California with my mom until our home in Luxembourg was ready for them to join us. Because our dogs couldn’t travel with us initially, their transportation costs were going to be $4,400 each just to get them overseas safely. However, having arrived in January of 2020, we had no idea that the European Union would shut down travel just a few short weeks later due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We very unexpectedly had to adjust to long-term life without our dogs, the furry loved ones who made our daily lives as a military family so much easier and bearable. My mother graciously housed and loved our girls for twenty months until we were able to be reunited. While we are grateful for our traveling experiences, the absence of our dogs was heavily felt every single day by our whole family.
At Leave No Paws Behind USA, we are a dedicated nonprofit serving fellow military families and their pets worldwide through providing grants to help cover transportation costs, which range from $3,000-10,000 per pet, each way. In addition, we are a critical informational resource and advocate for families when dealing with airlines. Further, Leave No Paws Behind USA has been delving into political advocacy by working with Senators to implement pet transportation stipends into the military overseas move budget. We are grateful for the opportunities we have had to support our furry heroes and long for more occasions to do so!