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Lincoln National Guardsman adopts two dogs found homeless after Hurricane Maria

December 24, 2017 GMT

Nebraska National Guard Spc. Michael Henn deployed this fall to the Virgin Islands on a hurricane relief mission, and came back with a couple of friends.

While Henn worked the overnight shift at the military headquarters on St. Croix, two stray dogs wandered in, night after night.

“I’d whistle and snap my fingers, and they’d come running,” said Henn, 22, of Lincoln. “We fed them and gave them baths.”

Now he is back home. The two pups, Pumpkin, a long-haired Chihuahua, and Benji, who is part terrier, are with him, too, after a long flight from St. Croix to South Carolina, and a cross-country drive in Henn’s car.

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When Henn was called up along with 57 other members of the Lincoln-based 67th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade in October to supervise post-hurricane military operations on St. Croix, he had no thought of bringing home a dog.

The unit’s members worked at the port in Fredriksted, which had been battered a month earlier by the Category 5 winds of Hurricane Maria. Most of the island lacked power. Lots of animals were running loose after the storm.

Soldiers are discouraged from having contact with stray animals because of the possibility they might carry disease. But Pumpkin and Benji seemed like a special case.

Henn said many of the soldiers became fond of them.

“If I hadn’t adopted them, someone else in the unit would have,” he said.

He found out from one of the Virgin Islands National Guard soldiers that the dogs’ owner had died shortly before the hurricane. No one seemed to be taking care of them.

Henn feared they would become strays after he left, so he asked about adopting them. First he ran into roadblocks. No pet transport services were flying to the United States. The Air Force had no time or interest in assisting. Other agencies were also too busy.

Then he got in touch with a representative of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals who was helping to arrange the shipment of the strays to the mainland for adoption.

The ASPCA eventually sent Pumpkin and Benji to the Charleston Animal Society, an animal welfare group that runs a shelter in Charleston, South Carolina. They went with 28 other dogs that were being made available for adoption there.

Charleston Animal Society has been very active in aiding pets displaced by the series of hurricanes that struck the Southeast and the Caribbean in late summer and early fall, said Aldwin Roman, the group’s director of anti-cruelty outreach.

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Pumpkin and Benji arrived with the other Virgin Islands dogs in late November. Roman said South Carolinians were enthusiastic about taking them in.

“Ninety percent of them were adopted within the first weekend we had them,” he said.

Henn was home from his deployment by then and drove to Charleston in early December to pick up his dogs, who had been given shots and physical exams.

Henn said even though the dogs were born and raised in the tropics, the chill of a Nebraska winter hasn’t bothered them.

“They’ve actually adjusted really well,” Henn said. “It’s so much colder. But we have coats for them.”

He describes Benji as “very outgoing” and Pumpkin as “a princess.”

“She’s up in your face and wants to be in your lap,” he said of Pumpkin. “She’ll give you kisses all day long.”

“They’re just the sweetest dogs I’ve ever met,” he added.

Henn said the two will be joining him at the 67th Brigade’s drill weekend next month, because so many of his fellow soldiers helped him and supported him in bringing the dogs home.

“They’re the unofficial mascots of my unit,” Henn said.

steve.liewer@owh.com, 402-444-1186