The childlike whimpering came from the rubble of a school destroyed during fighting in the war-torn Syrian city of Raqqa.
It sounded like a desperate cry for help but, as bomb disposal experts, we knew better than to rush to the rescue because having a child scream was a common ISIS tactic to lure you into a booby trap.
This was February 2018, only four months after the U.S.-led coalition had recaptured Raqqa from ISIS and traces of their evil could still be found in the thousands of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) they had hidden in seemingly every building and crevice.
Barrie’s childlike whimpering came from the rubble of a school destroyed during fighting in the war-torn Syrian city of Raqqa
A former soldier with the Royal Engineers, I’d joined a team recruited to clear those IEDs and we were at the end of a long and exhausting day when we heard that cry.
Scanning our surroundings for tripwires and motion detectors as we went, it took us a while to work out that it was coming from beneath a giant concrete plinth which we heaved away to reveal not a Syrian child but a small and visibly frightened puppy.
Surrounded by the bodies of three other pups and one big dog, presumably his mother, he was the lone survivor of the unspeakable horror that had unfolded around him, but he seemed relatively unharmed. ‘Relatively’ being the key word.
Having been a soldier for most of my adult life, I’ve seen the terrible consequences of war. Driving into Raqqa each day, we’d pass miles of homes riddled with bullet holes, mass graves and the bodies of children who’d taken one wrong step and paid the ultimate price.
‘I’m Sean. What’s your name?’ I asked, before deciding he was called Barry. I don’t know why, it just seemed to fit this little teddy bear-like creature who had me smitten from the start
War is unrelenting, and this shivering puppy was born in the belly of the beast.
He was white all over, save for dark ears and splotches of black and brown on his small, round head, and I could see a layer of dust trembling on the surface of his fur. ‘I’m scared, too,’ I admitted to him and I meant it.
When I was five, I was attacked by my neighbour’s mean old Rhodesian Ridgeback so I really was apprehensive of this tiny creature.
Putting on extra-thick combat gloves, I passed him a biscuit with my medical clamps. After some thought, he took a tiny nibble and, as he did so, I petted him softly, my hands still protected by Army-grade gloves.
‘I’m Sean. What’s your name?’ I asked, before deciding he was called Barry. I don’t know why, it just seemed to fit this little teddy bear-like creature who had me smitten from the start.
‘Who’s a good boy, Barry?’ I said enthusiastically, at which my whole team burst into fits of laughter. I’m a rather big lad, with a bushy beard and tattoos all over, so they didn’t expect my fluency in baby talk. All too soon it was time to head back to our camp an hour west of Raqqa and I could see that Barry was still too fearful to be picked up, so I left him with a biscuit and some water.
‘I’ll see you tomorrow, Barry,’ I said, wanting it to be true so badly because I realised that this was no ordinary dog.
Meeting Barry had made me feel hopeful for the first time since leaving the Army in the summer of 2014, after seven years which had included two gruelling tours in Afghanistan.
Back home in Essex, I would sometimes cry thinking about the horrors I’d seen, such as the mutilated corpse of a fellow soldier kidnapped and horribly tortured by the Taliban.
But while I now know that I was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), at the time it seemed I just couldn’t cope with the realities of civilian life, in which one thing seemed to come on top of another.
I was already struggling to make a living as a personal trainer when my girlfriend had a miscarriage. Hearing she was pregnant had been the best moment of my life and, although I tried my best to be there for her after she lost the baby, I felt like a hand grenade about to explode and I started drinking heavily. Eventually we split up and, with nowhere to go except my parents, I ended up sleeping in my van to stop them seeing the state I was in.
The only time I felt like myself again was in October 2017 when I went to the funeral of a friend killed clearing IEDs in Syria.
Back home, people saw me as a bit of a failure but my former colleagues only knew me as Sean the soldier.
I much preferred being that guy and so, when I was asked to take my friend’s place in the Syrian team, I needed little convincing.
I arrived in January 2018 and it was a month later that I met Barry. The day after we’d first found him, I returned to the rubble of the school and felt dejected when there was no sign of him.
When she saw a picture of Barrie, my girlfriend Netty decided she was going to be her mum. The three are pictured together
As we prepared to drive back to base, I told myself that it was fine, that I barely knew him, and that I had other priorities, but I lit up when I heard one of the Syrians I worked with shouting: ‘Barry! Barry! Barry!’
He’d hidden himself away to escape the cold night winds and he must have wondered who this geezer was who wouldn’t leave him alone. I was a proper stalker.
I had to take a leap of faith, if he was ever to take one on me.
Against my better judgment, I extended my hand — gloveless and bare — and softly stroked his head. I liked petting him, it felt right, but only after another two days of such visits did he seem sure enough of me that I could take him back to our base.
When I held him in my arms for the first time, he looked confused, as if to say: ‘What is this man doing?’, but as I looked down at him I knew that he was my little boy and I was his dad. He snored loudly throughout the journey back to base. I doubt he’d had a genuinely relaxed night’s rest since his birth and now he felt it was safe to get some shut-eye, knowing I was there to protect him.
Back at camp, I carried him into my room, placed him on my soft duvet and left him to snore a little longer.
When he woke up, I went to kiss him and found myself reeling.
He’d obviously never had a shower before and he didn’t want one now, as became clear when I placed him in a sink with a movable tap like a tiny shower head.
His legs splayed in all directions to avoid falling into what he saw as a death-trap, but he was super-fluffy afterwards and it was as I inspected him for bites or rashes that I found out that Barry wasn’t a boy.
It was too late for a new name now so I just changed it to Barrie. Problem solved.
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That night, I took Barrie to the bar where she quickly found several volunteers to be her ‘other dad’, including my mate Digger, a tough Scotsman with a soft side to him. To welcome Barrie, he’d made her a small teddy bear from some rope and a pair of old jeans, along with a collar and a military harness with her name stitched onto it.
Digger had rescued a couple of dogs from Afghanistan with a charity called War Paws and — since I already knew I wanted Barrie to come home with me — I set up an online fundraising page to gather the £4,500 which they advised it would cost to get her back to England.
For the main photo, I put my military vest on the ground alongside my rifle and placed Barrie inside it, with her head and paws sticking out of the top.
She looked so cute that within 24 hours we had raised over £1,000. While we waited for more money to come in, she often came to work with me.
On our drives into Raqqa she’d place her head between the two front seats of our SUV, watching the world go by.
She lifted everyone’s spirits, especially at difficult times like the day a Syrian Defence Force soldier named Mohammed was killed by an IED. That night, I washed his blood from my body in the shower block and returned to my bedroom where Barrie had only one thought on her mind: cuddles.
‘Today was rough, Barrie,’ I told her, as she lay upside down on her back, paws raised as if begging to be held. Carrying her slender body in my arms, I felt the weight of the world lift off my shoulders.
Every morning she woke me by sitting on my face and whenever I was writing up my paperwork, she’d inspect my computer mouse, squaring up, ready to pounce.
I tried to discipline her, but she turned me and everyone else into big softies who played by her rules, including our Malaysian chefs who reserved her a special plate of delicacies each day, grilled chicken being her favourite. They would squeal when they saw her coming.
Barrie brought out that childlike giddiness in people — even the six massive Navy Seals who came into our office one day, towering over everyone and with faces that looked ready for war.
I stood up, preparing myself for a firm handshake to match their stern demeanour, but then one of them spotted Barrie and they all dissolved, taking turns to fuss over her. Every day with Barrie was like that, as I told my friend Netty who’d been one of my personal training clients.
We’d known each other for three years and spent loads of time together back in England but things only really progressed when Barrie came along.
When she saw a picture of her, Netty decided she was going to be her mum. Planning our lives as parents brought us closer together, transforming our friendship into a relationship. I couldn’t wait to take Barrie home with me, but then came a huge setback.
Making a brief trip home that March for a wedding, I was about to fly back to Syria when I learned that, due to the country becoming increasingly unstable, our contracts had been cancelled. All my mates were being flown home.
No travel to the area we’d been in was now allowed, but somehow I had to get Barrie out.
Fortunately, we’d already smashed the £4,500 that War Paws had asked for and they arranged for Barrie to be smuggled out of Syria and into Iraq in a truck.
From there she went into quarantine in Jordan and so began the long wait for her return — at least three months, even if everything went swimmingly.
I missed her every day as I battled once again to adapt to Civvy Street but, thanks to Barrie, I did not become the mess I’d been only a year before.
I was her dad and that motivated me to keep pushing myself as I worked on the home which Netty and I would share with her.
I couldn’t afford to move out of my parents’ house but neither could Barrie stay there because Dad was allergic to fur.
So I converted the shed in their back garden into a little cabin, just big enough for the three of us.
Finally, in October last year, and after several false starts, we got the long-awaited call to say that Barrie was being put on a flight to Paris. Netty and I booked tickets on the Eurotunnel and drove the 300 miles to Charles de Gaulle Airport to meet her.
In arrivals, we heard the distant barks of what sounded like a violent pack of dogs. I thought there must be at least four of them but there were no other angry mutts. Only Barrie, who was in a crate and losing her mind.
She wasn’t the sweet little pup I’d found in Syria, she was this aggressive big dog. Only I knew she wasn’t really aggressive, just frightened.
I’d hoped she would know who I was but when I approached her cage and held out an old T-shirt I’d worn to bed all week so she might remember my scent, she looked at me like I was crazy and unleashed another onslaught of barks.
‘I don’t think she recognises me,’ I whispered to Netty. Seven months had led to this moment, and now I just felt sad.
But she was calmer by the time we got to our tiny Nissan Micra in which she could fit only by sticking her head through the middle of the two front seats, just like in Syria.
She fell asleep almost as soon as we started driving and during a break in a layby a few hours later, she started sniffing my leg, then fell to the ground by my feet, her belly facing up and her paws reaching out for me.
She wanted to play. She knew who I was. ‘Who’s a good girl?’ I asked. I’d waited so long to say that. Back in our converted shed the next morning, I let her out to do her essentials then she bounded back in and up on to the bed, her tail wagging uncontrollably as she lay on my chest.
It put a smile on my face although, unused to her increased weight, I struggled to breathe.
I’d hoped to welcome her gently into her new life. But the publicity we’d encouraged when we were fund-raising really took off once we’d been reunited.
There were stories about us in all the national newspapers, we were on the TV news, and even appeared on This Morning, although our chat with Eamonn Holmes and his wife Ruth almost didn’t happen because their studio is on the first floor and Barrie, who had never seen a flight of stairs before, refused to climb them. I had to carry her.
Barrie was now 27 kilos and I felt every step, but I would do anything for her because that dusty little creature I found buried in the rubble has had such a profound effect on me.
Meeting her was the best day of my life. Without her I don’t know if I would have ever been able to climb out of that dark pit of despair after Afghanistan, to acknowledge the atrocities that I witnessed as a soldier or learn how to be a civilian.
Today, I work part-time as an assistant paramedic and run a fitness training business with a friend. Although I still have moments when I can feel myself getting anxious, I just close my laptop and play with Barrie.
With her around, I have clarity and a purpose. And although people say I saved Barrie’s life, the truth is that she saved mine.
Adapted from Barrie: How A Rescue Dog And Her Owner Saved Each Other by Sean Laidlaw, published by Hodder on August 8 at £16.99. © Sean Laidlaw 2019.
To order a copy for £13.59 (offer valid to 16/8/19; p&p free on orders over £15), call 0844 571 0640.
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