There’s one more mouth to feed at the Fulton home of Don and Phyllis Smith, but the house still feels empty.
They miss their military son, Army Pfc. Jeremiah Smith, whose stay in Iraq was extended until August. Yet they keep some comfort in their new arrival, Niki, a stray dog the soldier found on duty overseas and nursed back to health.
“Having her back is kind of like having a small piece of him back,” Don said.
Niki’s journey to Fulton began with a trip to the Baghdad Zoo for vaccinations. After that there was a one-week wait to make sure the vaccinations were working. It took another week to get Niki out of Iraq and into an undisclosed Middle Eastern city. Niki had to be vaccinated again and wait yet another week to get on a plane to Chicago. From O’Hare airport, Niki flew to St. Louis where on April 7 she was welcomed into the family by Don. He said Niki was in transit for more than 18 hours.
“It was kind of costly,” Don said. “Everything was costly.”
Don estimated that the total cost of Niki’s voyage was more than $2,000, an amount raised by donations on Military Mascots’ Web page. Military Mascots is an organization that helps soldiers bring their adopted pets to the United States.
In a conversation with his father, Jeremiah described why he worked so hard to get Niki home. “Well, I just couldn’t stand leaving her behind,” he said. “I had to.”
The elder Smith tries to act like it hasn’t been tough having his son in Iraq. His wife, however, won’t let him.
“It’s been hard on him,” mouthed Phyllis as she sat next to her husband and pointed at him.
Originally, Niki’s trip to the United States and Jeremiah’s homecoming were to be within weeks of each other. Now, with increased violence in Iraq, Jeremiah stay has been extended from May until August.
“It gets difficult,” Don said. “I’d rather it be me over there than him.”
“We take it one day at a time,” said Phyllis . “We have our good days and our bad days.”
Yellow ribbons adorn the Smiths’ pale-yellow, two-story farmhouse. Green grass surrounds a pond that Don Smith stocked with fish he caught. It’s a far cry from the war-torn country Niki knew.
In January, Jeremiah and his roommates discovered Niki outside their compound’s gate. She was starving and large swatches of her fur were missing.
The men took her and made her part of the family. They fed her leftovers and, eventually, the dog food their families sent them.
At first it seemed as if they’d have to leave Niki behind because the army wouldn’t take her out of the country, and Jeremiah couldn’t find anyone else to help. In Missouri, Don got involved. He began calling government agencies, talking with animal rights groups and even e-mailing President George W. Bush.
Finally, the Smiths were put in touch with Military Mascots.
Now, wearing an American flag bandana around her neck, the black-and-white mutt is still noticeably skinny; Niki’s having trouble switching to dog food after eating human leftovers for so many months, Phyllis Smith said.
She’s also noticeably quiet. Her eyes stare out as she combs the room with her ears folded to the side and her half- tail sticking up in the air. She stares at the fireplace, the DVD collection and the home’s visitors. When she looks at people’s faces, they tend to automatically kneel down to her level.
From there she stares a bit longer, sniffs them and rubs her head on their legs, which immediately elicits a hug from her companion.
While most of the Smith family has taken to loving Niki, not everyone is thrilled. In fact, one thing is for certain; Cuddles isn’t happy.
After 15 years of being the only four-legged creature roaming her house, Cuddles, a white-and-tan calico, is having a hard time adjusting to life with a canine.
“[Niki] let the cat eat out of her dish last night,” Don said.
“Well,” Phyllis said, “that’s what we call a little bit of a truce.”
It’s understandable that Cuddles, just one member of the Smith’s animal family, is upset — she seems to inhabit the low end of the Smith pet food chain. Cuddles has been chased by the family’s cockatiel and now lives in fear of the family’s mallard duck.
“She’s been afraid of it ever since it bit her in the butt,” Don said.
While Don wishes his son was at home, he said he especially feels bad for the National Guardsmen who have been in Iraq longer than his son and now have had their tours extended.
“It has to be tough on them and their families,” Don said.
For now, the Smiths await the return of their son. In Iraq, Niki slept at the foot of Jeremiah’s bunk; in Fulton, she sleeps between his parents.