Garrett Rogers liked the runt.
Anastasia, as the Navy petty officer second class would call her, was a "tiny, little ball of fur," an Afghan shepherd puppy and a comfort from war.
Puppy Rescue MissionWhat: Texas-based nonprofit group
Mission: Reuniting "battle buddies," native dogs or cats with soldiers who adopted the animals during deployment overseas
How to help: Donate and sponsor a decoration on the "2014 Miracle Tree" at Facebook.com/puppyrescuemission
The Lindenhurst native and his unit adopted a litter of puppies found on the side of a road just outside their compound near Kabul. At about 5 pounds, Anastasia was the smallest one in the bunch.
Rogers saved her twice. First from an infected cut, caked in mud, on her left hind leg. Rogers think she got the laceration -- so deep he could see bone -- from a piece of razor wire.
"She was just an absolute trooper the whole time," the 25-year-old said, remembering how he cleaned and bandaged her leg.
The second time, Rogers saved her from a fate as a stray in a place where dogs live in packs, not homes. He invokes a military motto -- leave no one behind -- when he talks about the risky and expensive operation to get Anastasia out of Afghanistan.
It's called Puppy Rescue Mission. The group's suburban volunteers work to ship dogs (and some cats) to the U.S. and to reunite the animals with their battle buddies.
"It's not just about rescuing the dogs," says Army Cpt. Cassie Wyllie, who is stationed in Texas and whose puppy, Penny, arrived at O'Hare International Airport. "Every animal that they bring back helps rescue a piece of that soldier."
Under military rules, deployed troops can't keep local dogs as pets because of the risk of disease. Rogers only cared for Anastasia and the rest of the litter outside his compound, bringing the puppies some scraps of food and clean water.
On his second tour in Afghanistan, Rogers found a companion in Anastasia, who helped him de-stress from a grueling job. Rogers worked on construction projects and didn't see direct combat, but sometimes fell under rocket or mortar fire.
"It was just that normalcy, a sense of being home," the self-described animal lover said of his bond with Anastasia. "It's just something that's not trying to kill you."
Troops often learn about Puppy Rescue Mission through word-of-mouth. And that was the case with Rogers, who heard about the Texas-based group from a supervisor and got in touch with an Afghan animal shelter, the first stop in Anastasia's journey.
It's up to each soldier to find a way to bring dogs to the shelter, where the canines get vaccinated and the necessary paperwork to fly out of the country in crates (Rogers still has the Afghan department of agriculture's stamp of approval).
But Puppy Rescue Mission raises the funds -- an average of $3,800 per dog -- for the airline tickets, vet care both overseas and here, and pet supplies. This year, organizers spent about $11,000 of their $600,000 budget on vaccines alone.
As troops withdraw from Afghanistan, the group is trying to keep up with the requests from both soldiers and employees of military contractors who want to adopt working dogs.
"Right now, we're kind of overwhelmed," says Linda Merkel, a fundraising coordinator from Arlington Heights.
The next batch of dogs is expected to come through O'Hare in the spring. Most airlines don't heat the cargo sections of planes, so dogs can only travel during warmer months.
The team also finds foster families who provide a temporary home for canines until soldiers finish their deployment.
Simone Graham, the wife of a Marine from a reserve unit out of Great Lakes Naval Station, did that for Patches, an Afghan Kuchi puppy. Through obedience training, the Des Plaines woman helped Patches adjust from life in a war zone to life as a family dog.
"It was tough letting her go," said Graham, who also coordinates the logistics of transporting dogs to O'Hare and from there to their final destinations.
Wearing an American flag bandanna around her collar, Patches almost stole the spotlight from Army Spc. Maryann Yang's homecoming at O'Hare this fall.
"The first thing I saw was this beautiful dog with black and brown patches on her," said Yang, 21, a Wheaton native. " ... I was just a cheerful mess."
Yang first met Patches at the start of her 9-month tour in Afghanistan and now comforts a homesick Yang in Alabama, where she plans on heading to college.
"She hates hearing me cry, seeing me cry," Yang said. "She becomes very cuddly, just kind of helps remind me that I do have friends here."
Garrett, too, will have Anastasia at his side while he works toward a career in law enforcement at Western Illinois University.
"There's thousands of animals over here that deserve good homes, but you form a special bond over there that really can't be equaled," he said.