Soldiers’ dog in Afghanistan finds home in Everett

EVERETT — LuLu is a world traveler and a war veteran. She was also a typical puppy.

“She was always stealing shoes. It was hilarious,” said Army Capt. Nikki Schmitz-Abeyta, an Everett native based at Fort Bragg, N.C.

LuLu’s journey from Afghanistan to Everett makes for one long shaggy-dog story. In short, the year-old dog, an 85-pound Central Asian shepherd, is happily adjusting to life in Everett with Schmitz-Abeyta’s parents.

“She’s just a great dog. She lies around the house, and she gets us out for walks,” said Debbie McCollum Schmitz, the 26-year-old Army captain’s mother.

Schmitz and her husband, Nick, agreed to keep LuLu after an Army teammate of their daughter’s in Afghanistan couldn’t care for the dog. The Everett couple, who have three other children, met LuLu last month — in Florida — and brought her home to stay.

“We flew home to Seattle. When she got to Everett, there was frost on the ground. She was licking the blades of grass,” Schmitz said. “I don’t think she had ever seen frost.”

Schmitz, a teacher at Everett’s Evergreen Middle School, brought LuLu to Edgewater Park near Mukilteo on Tuesday to tell the dog’s story.

LuLu has a sister pup, also rescued from Afghanistan. Schmitz-Abeyta and her husband, Army Capt. Adam Abeyta, have LuLu’s sister Betty at their home near Fort Bragg. They already had another dog, a husky.

In a call from Fort Bragg on Tuesday, Schmitz-Abeyta said she and her female teammate were given the tiny pups at a base in Afghanistan before being deployed with their special forces group to a more remote area. A graduate of Kamiak High School and Washington State University, Schmitz-Abeyta was on her second tour in Afghanistan.

“Most conventional bases don’t allow dogs,” she said. They were given the dogs by someone who couldn’t keep them. “They would be euthanized,” Schmitz-Abeyta said.

“They were just too cute,” she said. “The first night we got the dogs, we were Skyping with our families, showing them the puppies online.”

She and the other soldier, the only women in their group, worked in village stability operations. And the puppies?

“We took them on the Black Hawk helicopter. We put them in a little cardboard box and didn’t tell the pilots. You couldn’t hear them over the noise,” she said. They kept the pups for more than four months. Back home, Schmitz was shipping boxes of dog food to Afghanistan.

While the first group she worked with “didn’t mind them at all,” Schmitz-Abeyta said, when another team arrived, they couldn’t keep the dogs in Afghanistan.

Schmitz said her daughter so loved her canine friend, she paid almost $4,000 to the Humane Society so Betty could be sent home. Her husband, Capt. Adam Abeyta, was in training in Oklahoma, and Betty was sent there. His wife made it home in October.

The soldier who had LuLu couldn’t afford to ship her dog home, so LuLu became a “chip-in” dog, Schmitz said. LuLu’s story was posted on the Afghan Stray Animals League website. Based in the United States, the charity runs an animal shelter in Kabul and finds homes for pets befriended by U.S. troops.

“People from all over the world sent what they could to pay for LuLu to come home,” Schmitz said.

The Everett woman said both dogs traveled for two weeks, from Kabul to Pakistan, and on to New York. While Betty was sent to Oklahoma to meet Adam Abeyta before his wife returned, LuLu became a foster dog. She stayed with a retired Army officer on the East Coast. “He takes in soldiers’ pets,” Schmitz said.

Schmitz-Abeyta said another organization, the Puppy Rescue Mission, paid for LuLu’s flight from New York to North Carolina. Yet after the other female soldier was reunited with LuLu, she didn’t have the money to keep her. Schmitz said her daughter got a call from the woman saying she might have LuLu put to sleep. Her daughter wouldn’t hear of it, and brought LuLu home to Fort Bragg to be with Betty.

“It sounds like the story should end there,” Schmitz said. Instead, the Everett couple, who were planning a February trip to Orlando, Fla., got a call from their daughter. Did they want a dog?

“I had to convince Nick,” Schmitz said. They accepted, and their soldier daughter brought LuLu to Florida. “She stayed in a kennel at Disney’s Port Orleans Resort — it was like a doggie spa,” Schmitz said. There, LuLu was given an American flag kerchief. “She had a good time,” Schmitz said.

In Everett, Schmitz tells students in her English language learners class about LuLu. “They say ‘She’s an immigrant, kind of like us,’ ” Schmitz said.

Schmitz doesn’t know all that LuLu, or her daughter, experienced in the war-torn country. The dog is wary of some men, and can be territorial if someone comes to the house. LuLu attends obedience classes and is learning to be with other dogs and people.

“The thing that makes her extra special, she was with my daughter in war,” Schmitz said.

At Fort Bragg, Schmitz-Abeyta agreed that the pups brightened a tough place.

“The best thing to come out of Afghanistan is my dog,” she said.

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