Sgt. Travis Burton, a Greenhills native, plays with two puppies he helped raise while on tour of duty in Afghanistan. (Adam Kiefaber / The Cincinnati Enquirer)
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CINCINNATI — Many veterans of war hold on strongly to someone they leave behind.
Most commonly, those are the loved ones back home. Occasionally, it is someone who is left overseas.
One local soldier was reunited with his mom in June, then this week, with eight friends who were a big part of his life in Afghanistan.
During his recent six-month stint in western Afghanistan and his yearlong tour in Iraq in 2009, Army National Guard Sgt. Travis Burton, 34, received regular care packages from his mother, Tika. They also communicated through email almost every other day and chatted on Skype.
They would talk family, but also about a stray dog who followed his unit and protected them from other wild dogs where they were stationed in Islam Qala, a town in Afghanistan near the border of Iran.
The unit named her Sheba, which in Hebrew means “promise.”
In March, Sheba gave birth to seven puppies.
The unit and its medic promised to take care of Sheba and ensure the puppies, now dubbed “The Magnificent Seven,” would survive.
The unit, which included 11 soldiers, took turns caring for the pups.
They even built a structure outside their compound that would shield the dogs from dust storms.
The dogs survived on the soldiers’ rations for two months until friends back home shipped out bags of Puppy Chow.
“They kind of became a part of our team,” Burton said. “You feel for the men to the left and to the right of you, but you also start to worry about (the dogs). Are they getting enough food? Do they have enough shelter from the dust storms? Are they not getting kidnapped at night? Is someone not trying to poison them?”
Just as he worried about the dogs, his mom was thinking of her son.
However, unbeknownst to her, Travis had an opportunity to come home early.
What had appeared a regular work meeting for Tika Burton at Luxottica in Mason on June 14 turned out to be a mother-and-son reunion that was secretly planned by her son and her co-workers.
The only things amiss were the video cameras that were at the office, which she believed were part a follow-up story that “60 Minutes” had recently aired.
Then Travis walked through the door in the middle of the meeting. A shocked Tika fell into her son’s arms and didn’t let go.
“This is my hero,” Tika told the crowd, fighting back tears. “I’ve missed him so much.”
Many of the soldiers in the unit didn’t return home until last month, while Sheba and the pups stayed behind.
“When I left there were plenty of moments when I thought about the dogs and you got really worried,” Burton said. “There have been stories where dogs that were known to have been taken care of by U.S. soldiers were poisoned or strung up.”
That isn’t how the story ended, however, as Burton, along with Sgt. Edwin Caba, Sgt. Alex Rotondi and Maj. Andrew Pinckney, all from New York, reached out to Save-A-Pet Animal Rescue in Port Jefferson Station, N.Y. Through an online campaign, more than $15,000 was raised for the dogs’ transport to the U.S.
The dogs were sent safely through the Guardians of Rescue’s Paws of War — No Buddy Left Behind program to the U.S. on flights that originated from Kabul, Afghanistan, to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City.
That is where a choked up group of soldiers was reunited Wednesday with Sheba and the puppies, Cadence, Rocky, Sarah, Jack, Buckeye, Breezy and Harris, who all appeared to be grown up at just more than 6 months old.
On Thursday, Burton and his mother drove back to Cincinnati with their two newest family members — Buckeye and Breezy. They arrived home at 6 a.m., and Travis drove straight down to his 8 a.m. class at the University of Cincinnati, where he is studying criminal justice.
All the while, the dogs barked at the other dogs in the neighborhood, rested in their new home and played with toys.
“Out there, they became our main focus when we had time to think,” Burton said. “It is surreal. I still can’t believe that they are sitting in my mom’s living room. To be in Afghanistan with these dogs and to see them at JFK and see them coming around that corner, I had to open (the crates) up and see how much they have grown.”