Book Review: From Baghdad, With Love

My good friend Jenna sent me this book to read, and I was so distracted with school and work and life in general, that I forgot about it and it sat on my bookshelf for a year. I finally got around to reading it and I wish I would have read it earlier.

Here is my review of “From Baghdad, With Love” by Lieutenant Colonel Jay Kopelman.

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The story of Jay Kopelman and his best friend, Lava, is an incredibly moving one. Kopelman is a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps who is stationed in Fallujah, Iraq. Kopelman’s fellow Lava Dogs (that’s the name of his unit) were performing a routine house search when they stumbled upon a dirty, rambunctious, and slightly wild-looking puppy. Kopelman met the puppy, who they named “Lava,” when he returned from a mission and was still on edge from dodging sniper fire. When Kopelman entered the room that Lava was in, Lava ran towards him.

“A sudden flash of something rolls towards me out of nowhere, shooting so much adrenaline into my wiring that I jump back and slam into a wall…Like I’m tired and wired and anything quick coming at me jerked at my nerves, so I peel back off the wall and reach for my rifle even though I can see it’s only a puppy.” (Kopelman, 4)

Kopelman goes on to explain that he knows it was ridiculous to point his gun at a puppy, but when you’re terrified of everything that moves or makes noise because you just finished dodging fire and bombs for four days, a wild and barking puppy can scare the pants off of any Marine.

It doesn’t take long for Lava to forgive Kopelman, however, and soon Lava has pegged Kopelman as his favorite Lava Dog. Like a good soldier, Kopelman reminds himself that adopting animals while deployed is forbidden, but soon Kopelman’s humanity gets the best of him, and finding a sleeping puppy in his sleeping bag turns the tide for the soldier.

“Another morning I wake up thinking someone short-sleeved my sleeping bag because I can’t push my feet to the end. It’s Lava, who managed to crawl in during the middle of the night and curl up at the bottom in a ball.
‘Oh man, this has got to stop.’
He snores away, and I don’t want to disturb him because it’s still too early to get up, so I lie there enjoying the warmth of his breath on my feet…”

lava

Very quickly, Lava becomes a source of companionship and comfort for Kopelman. Lava reminds Kopelman of good and bad things. He makes the soldier think about death and his mortality, but he also makes him start to think about the impact of his actions as a soldier in Iraq. Mostly, the puppy reminds Kopelman that he’s not only a Marine, but he’s a human being, capable of and needing love and comfort. He describes an evening when he was experiencing nightmares, and woke to find that Lava was cuddled next to him, shivering and soaked in his own pee.

“It’s the first time this has happened since he started sleeping in my bag in Fallujah.
‘Humiliated?’
He whimpers.
‘Nightmares?’
Lava pushes his nose and then most of his body under the pillow. I hum the Marine anthem to him. His tail starts patting the bed.
‘Me too.’ “

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The rest of their story consists of Kopelman and other Marines trying to conceal Lava from being discovered, which is difficult considering that Lava is constantly on guard, which the Marines and a journalist who helps take care of him think is because of the environment he was born and raised in. Their story also includes the struggle to get Lava out of Iraq and to the United States. This part of the story had me gripping the edge of my seat, hoping that Lava would have a happy ending with Kopelman. I won’t divulge any more of the story so that you can read it yourself. I will say that this story is worth reading, even if you’re not a dog lover. The most important thing I took away from the story is that civilians, such as myself, have so little knowledge of the struggles and horrific things that our soldiers endure, and we also neglect the fact that they oftentimes have a hard time assimilating back into civilian life. For Jay Kopelman, Lava didn’t just help him through his deployment in Iraq, he helped him adjust back to life in the U.S. Their companionship is so touching and heartwarming, and it makes my heart glad that they found each other.