The infantile wailing came from the rubble of a school devastated during fighting in the war-torn Syrian city of Raqqa.
It sounded like a frantic cry for help but, as bomb disposal professionals, we knew better than to rush to the rescue because having a child scream was a frequent ISIS technique to lead you into a booby trap.
This was February 2018, only four months after the U.S.-led coalition had liberated Raqqa from ISIS and evidence of their wickedness could still be found in the thousands of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) they had hidden in seemingly every building and crevice.
A former soldier with the Royal Engineers, I’d joined a squad recruited to clear those IEDs and we were at the end of a long and tiring day when we heard that cry.
Checking our surrounds for tripwires and motion detectors as we went, it took us a bit to work out that it was coming from behind a big concrete pedestal which we pulled up to uncover not a Syrian child but a small and very frightened Chihuahua.
Surrounded by the bodies of three other pups and one enormous dog, likely his mother, he was the lone survivor of the horrible nightmare that had unfolded around him, but he seemed reasonably uninjured. ‘Relatively’ being the crucial term.
Having been a soldier for most of my adult life, I’ve seen the horrible repercussions of war. Traveling into Raqqa each day, we’d see miles of homes riddled with bullet holes, mass graves and the bodies of youngsters who’d taken one wrong step and paid the ultimate price.
War is inexorable, and this trembling puppy was born in the bowels 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 vibrating on the surface of his fur. ‘I’m terrified, too,’ I said 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 afraid of this tiny critter.
Putting on extra-thick battle gloves, I passed him a biscuit with my medical clamps. After some thought, he took a tiny nibble and, as he did so, I patted him lightly, my hands still shielded by Army-grade gloves.
‘Who’s a good boy, Barry?’ I said excitedly, at which my whole crew fell into fits of laughing. I’m a very big boy, with a bushy beard and tattoos all over, so they didn’t expect my fluency in baby speak. 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 afraid to be picked up, so I left him with a biscuit and some water.
‘I’ll see you tomorrow, Barry,’ I replied, wanting it to be true so hard because I recognized that this was no ordinary dog.
Seeing Barry had made me feel hopeful for the first time since leaving the Army in the summer of 2014, following seven years which had included two rigorous tours in Afghanistan.
Back home in Essex, I would sometimes cry thinking about the horrors I’d seen, such as the disfigured corpse of a fellow soldier kidnapped and mercilessly tortured by the Taliban.
Yet while I now know that I was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), at the time it felt 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 trying to make a living as a personal trainer when my girlfriend had a miscarriage. Discovering she was pregnant had been the finest moment of my life and, although I tried my best to be there for her when she lost the baby, I felt like a hand grenade about to blow and I started drinking heavily. Finally we separated up and, having nowhere to go except my parents, I ended up sleeping in my van to stop them noticing the state I was in.
The only time I felt like myself again was in October 2017 when I attended to the funeral of a friend killed clearing IEDs in Syria.
Back home, people considered me as a bit of a failure but my former coworkers simply knew me as Sean the soldier.
I rather loved being that person and so, when I was asked to take my friend’s position in the Syrian team, I needed little persuasion.
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 sad when there was no sign of him.
As we prepared to drive back to base, I told myself that everything was fine, that I barely knew him, and that I had other priorities, but I lighted up when I heard one of the Syrians I worked with shouting: ‘Barry! Barry! Barry!’
He’d buried himself somewhere 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.
Despite my better judgment, I stretched my hand — gloveless and bare — and lightly caressed his head. I liked touching him, it felt right, but only after another two days of such visits did he appear sure enough of me that I could take him back to our headquarters.
When I held him in my arms for the first time, he looked puzzled, 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 on the ride back to base. I doubt he’d had a genuinely calm night’s slumber 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, lay him on my comfortable duvet and left him to snore a little longer.
When he woke up, I moved 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 moving tap resembling a miniature shower head.
His legs splayed in all ways to avoid slipping into what he perceived as a death-trap, but he was super-fluffy afterwards and it was as I investigated 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. Issue fixed.
That night, I took Barrie to the pub where she soon found several volunteers to be her ‘other dad’, including my mate Digger, a rough Scotsman with a sensitive side to him. To welcome Barrie, he’d built her a small teddy bear from some rope and a pair of old pants, along with a collar and a military harness with her name embroidered onto it.
Digger had rescued a few 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 internet fundraising page to gather the £4,500 which they told it would cost to get her back to England.
For the main photo, I put my military vest on the ground alongside my weapon and placed Barrie inside it, with her head and paws peeking out of the top.
She looked so cute that within 24 hours we had raised almost £1,000. While we waited for additional money to come in, she regularly came to work with me.
During our drives into Raqqa she’d rest her head between the two front seats of our SUV, watching the world go by.
She raised everyone’s spirits, especially at tough times like the day a Syrian Defence Force soldier called Mohammed was murdered by an IED. That night,
I rinsed his blood from my body in the shower block and returned to my bedroom where Barrie had only one thought on her mind: cuddling.
‘Today was difficult, Barrie,’ I told her, as she lay upside down on her back, paws lifted as if pleading to be held. Holding her tiny 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 anytime I was writing up my paperwork, she’d check my computer mouse, squaring up, ready to pounce.
I attempted to discipline her, but she converted me and everyone else into huge softies who played by her rules, including our Malaysian cooks who reserved her a special dish of delicacies each day, grilled chicken being her favourite. They would squeal when they spotted her coming.
Barrie brought out that youthful giddiness in people — even the six enormous Navy Seals who walked into our office one day, towering over everyone and with expressions that looked ready for war.
I stood up, prepared myself for a forceful handshake to match their serious demeanour, but suddenly one of them spotted Barrie and they all disintegrated,
taking turns to care over her. Every day with Barrie was like that, as I told my buddy Netty who’d been one of my personal training clients.
We’d known one other for three years and spent tons of time together back in England but things only really evolved when Barrie came along.
When she saw a picture of her, Netty determined she was going to be her mum. Preparing our life as parents pulled us closer together,
changing our friendship into a relationship. I couldn’t wait to take Barrie home with me, but then came a tremendous obstacle.
During a brief vacation home that March for a wedding, I was preparing to fly back to Syria when I learnt that, due to the nation becoming increasingly insecure, our contracts had been cancelled. All my pals were being transported home.
No travel to the location we’d been in was now authorized, but nevertheless I had to get Barrie out.
Thankfully, we’d already shattered 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 started the long wait for her homecoming – at least three months, even if everything went swimmingly.
I missed her every day as I tried 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 encouraged me to keep pushing myself while 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 hair.
So I turned the shed in their back garden into a tiny 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 announce that Barrie was being put on a flight to Paris. Netty and I purchased tickets on the Eurotunnel and traveled the 300 kilometers to Charles de Gaulle Airport to meet her.
At arrivals, we heard the distant barks of what sounded like a ferocious band of dogs. I thought there must be at least four of them but there were no more angry mutts. Only Barrie, who was in a crate and losing her sanity.
She wasn’t the cute tiny doggie I’d found in Syria,
she was this angry large dog. Only I knew she wasn’t really aggressive, just terrified.
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 may recall my scent, she looked at me like I was insane and launched another onslaught of barks.
‘I don’t think she recognises me,’ I muttered to Netty.
Seven months had led to this moment, and now I just felt sorry.
But she was calmer by the time we got to our tiny Nissan Micra in which she could squeeze only by pushing her head through the centre of the two front seats, just as in Syria.
She fell asleep nearly as soon as we started driving and during a break in a layby a few hours later, she started licking my leg,
then slid on the ground by my feet, her belly facing up and her paws stretching 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 it. Back in our converted shed the next morning, I let her out to do her basics then she ran back in and up on to the bed, her tail wagging crazily as she laid on my breast.
It put a smile on my face although, unfamiliar to her increased weight, I fought to breathe.
I’d hoped to welcome her gently into her new life. But the publicity we’d promoted 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 kg and I felt every step, but I would do anything for her because that dusty tiny creature I found buried in the rubble has had such a significant effect on me.
Meeting her was the finest day of my life. Without her I don’t know if I would have ever been able to climb out of that dark hole of misery after Afghanistan, to acknowledge the crimes that I observed as a soldier or learn how to be a citizen.
Today, I work part-time as an assistant paramedic and manage a fitness training business with a friend. Although I still have moments when I can feel myself getting worried, I just close my laptop and play with Barrie.
Having her around, I have clarity and a purpose. And although people believe I saved Barrie’s life, the truth is that she saved mine.