Fallen Soldier's Beloved Pup Arrives in U.S.

Maj. Steven Hutchison's dog Laia is "the last thing left of him," says his brother

Richard Hutchison didn’t get to see his brother, Maj. Steven Hutchison, return home alive from Iraq. But Monday he got at least a tiny comfort: Laia, the dog the soldier rescued and loved in Iraq, landed in the United States after being saved by his former comrades and Operation Baghdad Pups, an offshoot of SPCA International.

“It’s the last thing left of him that he was passionate about,” Richard Hutchison told PEOPLE Pets after meeting the young yellow dog at Washington Dulles International Airport. “Even though Steve’s not here, I know how much Steve loved the dog. You can kind of feel Steve through the dog. I can see something that he loved over here. I can see it here licking us.”

Maj. Hutchison’s unit worked with Baghdad Pups to get Laia back to the U.S. after the soldier was killed by a roadside bomb on May 10. At 60, Hutchison was the oldest combat death of the nearly 5,000 troops who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. A decorated Vietnam veteran, the former psychology professor became an inspiration and practical joke-loving father figure to his unit, which he named “Team Force” because he was a big Star Wars fan. “As a final act for our brother, we want to send his dog home,” Sgt. Andrew Hunt said in an email to the SPCA.

Laia was originally found in Maj. Hutchison’s unit’s vehicle near Basra. (They later discovered she was left by another unit ordered to abandon her.) According to Stars and Stripes, Hutchison wrote and signed a memo authorizing the dog as a member of the unit and requesting it get shots from the base’s vet. He then took in the pup, letting her sleep in his bed and sometimes ride with him to meet Iraqi counterparts. “The whole team except for Steve came up with [another] name for the dog,” explains Richard. “Steve looked at it and said, ‘The dog’s name is Princess Leia.’ And there was no discussion.” (Her name, a nod to Star Wars, was ultimately spelled Laia).

As policy, soldiers are not supposed to adopt strays, but Hutchison defied orders to get rid of the dog, finding her a foster home and eventually sneaking her back on base. After his death–which the unit believes was a targeted attack because of Hutchison’s success in thwarting smugglers–his friends were determined to return Laia to the U.S. in his honor. Baghdad Pups were able to get her on the last flight out of Iraq before summer heat prohibits transporting animals. “We’ll resume missions in September, but I doubt Laia would have made it that long,” the group’s spokeswoman, Stephanie Scroggs, told PEOPLE Pets.

Laia will stay with the family of Sgt. Hunt in Virginia before heading to her permanent home with another member of “Team Force” who lives in Michigan with his wife and kids. And Maj. Hutchison’s brother Richard, who decided the dog would be happier with a young family, will visit her when he sees his own parents in Michigan. After all, she’s part of the family now.

You can donate to Baghdad Pups to help a soldier bring their pet home by visiting their Web site.

Beloved Dog Gets Ticket Out of Iraq

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