Instead of being forced to relinquish their pets, active members of the military now have a place to house their pets during deployment: Dogs on Deployment.
DoD connects members of the military with able-bodied individuals willing to take in their pets while they serve their country.
The organization came to fruition in June of 2011 when San Diego natives Alisa Sieber-Johnson (now a first lieutenant of the U.S. Marine Corps) and her husband, Shawn Johnson (a lieutenant of the U.S. Navy) struggled to find someone to watch their two Australian shepherds when they were being stationed on opposite coasts.
“We didn’t have immediate family who could keep our dogs,” Sieber-Johnson, 27, tells PEOPLE. “Our organization exists to ensure that your pets can stay a part of your family no matter what.”
So far, DoD has provided over 650 members of the military with boarding placement and financial support across the United States and abroad.
“It’s important to know that your dogs are in a safe and comfortable environment while you’re away – whether it’s for a weekend or several years,” says Sieber-Johnson.
When U.S Army 1st Lt. Gretchen Zilka, 25, and her husband, Lt. Benedict Zilka, 25, prepared to deploy from Fort Bliss, Texas to Afghanistan in April 2013, her husband was also deploying, though a few months later, in November.
They had no idea what to do with Tango, their five-year-old terrier mix.
DoD found Amanda Lopez-Askin – an animal rights advocate from Las Cruces, New Mexico – and the couple knew they were in good hands. Lopez-Askin, 40, cared for Tango for nine months.
“Dogs on Deployment laid out everything for us – from contracts to veterinary care,” Lopez-Askin tells PEOPLE. “It’s a one-stop shop; and they made it easy.”
Lopez-Askin assured the Zilkas that she and her family would be equipped to do right by them and their dog because no person serving his or her country should have to stress over finding a secure home for his or her pet upon being deployed.
“We were going to make sure that [Tango] was very well taken care of,” Askin tells PEOPLE.
“I think that anybody who really appreciates the sacrifice that soldiers make in their personal lives can get on board with [DoD],” she says, “And if they love animals, it’s the perfect marriage between the two things.”
Sieber-Johnson says the group gives soldiers something priceless: peace of mind.
“To take on a mission, your mind needs to be in a healthy place in order to have a successful deployment,” she says, “and you need to be mentally, physically and emotionally set to deploy.”
More Heroes Among Us: