Dog Eat Dog

Author Note: “Dog Eat Dog” is a story about war, homecoming, and judgement based on my experiences in Afghanistan. I wrote DED in a Veteran’s writing course offered by the Virginia War Memorial and Virginia Commonwealth University: The Mighty Pen Project.

I was getting ready for Afghan pump number two, and Kat was preparing for ten months alone in Orange County with Charlotte, who was transitioning from lovable bundle to shit-kicking asshole. She was two. I’m never happy I missed ten months of her childhood, but if I had to choose a particular ten months that might as well have been it.

Kat and Char and I were at Sanchos getting tacos on the patio. We were downtown but could hear no town noise. We heard only breathy, rumbling wind through palm trees. Sunset. The ocean, beyond San Clemente’s little-cottage skyline, looked like glass stained orange and deep blue. Charlotte was, for the moment, quietly palming queso into her face. I braced for tears from Kat. In the four months before a deployment, the following things made Kat cry: sunsets, peace, rich and saline ocean wind, parents with children, children without parents, upturned earth, dead flowers, live flowers.

Kat looked west and I saw her in profile. She looked less tired for a moment. She said:

“You know what I’ll miss? Really? Non-judgmental love.”

No tears, which was good, but she sounded a little too resigned.

“Like…when I’m dead?”

Her eyebrows knit, then a half-smile.

“No, no, like while you’re gone. This one is getting kind of…imperious?”-Charlotte snatched two little handfuls of guac to go with her queso- “and there’s nobody else here who’s always in my corner.”

Kat and Charlotte had only just joined me out west. I said nothing. Saying nothing is my secret weapon, marriage-wise. Probably the reason I get indirect compliments about my non-judgmental love.

The thing about saying nothing is that the other person may feel like they should say something. This can lead to moments like when Kat said:

“I think I’d like a dog.”

Kat had a way of yanking the things that troubled her more directly into her life. Do both commitment and loss scare you? Marry a Marine. Overwhelmed and alone? Take responsibility for a small, helpless animal with limited powers of commiseration.

“That just sounds like more chores.” I said.

“No, I know it’d be work but that’s just life. If we got the right one it would be like a little emotional support animal for me while you’re gone. For me and Char. Get one small enough for her to play with. To fly with, if we wanted.”

Typical Kat request: kind of adorable, reasoned, realistic but upside-focused. We started looking for rescues.


It took three minutes of googling for Kat to find a seven-pound Chihuahua with weirdly long legs and a humanlike gaze. His name was Pierre. He had pinscher coloring.

Kat liked the idea of a dog she could hide in a diaper bag.

The questionnaire we filled out seemed aimed at eliminating those who 1) had a sexual predilection for dogs, 2) had a culinary predilection for dogs, 3) had a moneymaking scheme involving dogs, or 4) had too many dogs, meaning they probably had too much of everything else and that their lives were decaying into rotting, moldy chaos due to their inability to let go of stuff. Kat clicked submit and muttered:

“To schedule a home visit, describe how your human failings will manifest in caring for this animal.”

We invited Pierre’s foster mom to scope out our apartment the next day.


The purpose of the visit, per the fostering site, was to assess the prospective dog-parents and home hygiene. We had a two-bedroom on the ground floor of a little blue house five-minutes from the beach. Sand covered every room except Charlotte’s, which we kept very clean. Otherwise we had a bathroom, the bedroom, and a cramped open-concept-for-renters kitchen/living room combo. Two hours before the visit Kat and I, loving parents of a healthy, whip-smart toddler, suffered a collapse of confidence in our ability to meet the dog-parent standards of the Love and Leashes pet adoption agency of Aliso Viejo. We frantically scrubbed and swept while Charlotte sat at the kitchen table and built a fort of Cheerios.

While Kat vacuumed in the bedroom, I scraped gunk that had melted from our living room carpet onto the floor. I turned to ask Charlotte why a carpet needed any gooey stuff on the bottom at all and saw that a dog I took to be Pierre was sitting on our recliner.

“Hi buddy” I said.

He wore neither leash nor collar. We’d left the door ajar. Hence Pierre, I guess. Charlotte had yet to notice him.

Pierre’s foster mom appeared in the threshold. She had short gray hair and wore a pink cardigan. She was out of breath.

“Oh! He must’ve seen the door was open and walked right in. He just loves people. It makes him very bold! Bold Pierre!”

Pierre did appear to at least love her. When she crossed into the house he bounced off the chair and started dancing around her on his weird long hind legs.

The gray-haired lady patted Pierre’s head. “I thought I’d let him off the leash and just watch his energy as he approached the house.”

Kat had arrived, vacuum in hand. She heard the part about watching Pierre’s energy. The anxiety fueling Kat’s home-scrub showed in her mouth, thin and tight.

“And? How is it? His energy. How is his energy?”

The gray-haired lady cooed as Charlotte offered Pierre a handful of cheerios and he choked them down whole.

“I think this is fine! Quite fine!”

Then she turned and left. The visit lasted less than twenty seconds. We signed nothing. Pink-cardigan lady had not confirmed any details like, say, our names. Kat looked like she had just been named prom-queen. She looked around our slightly cleaner living room/kitchen, nodding with satisfaction. Pierre did his weird little dance around Charlotte. She squealed with delight and made it rain cheerios.


In Afghanistan, the team I supported lived in an abandoned police station in a suburb of Ghazni. We were twenty-eight grunts standing guard, a couple support randos like me, and the operators; ten bearded creatine-enthusiasts who sat around making sure they were seen reading copies of Emerson and Nietzsche before zooming off on four wheelers with their Afghan Commando protégés.

My first job was to make sure our translators, or the contractors who occasionally dropped off food, or the Commandos protégés, harbored no secret plans to kill us. In my free time I did targeting for the task force and managed my own portfolio of sources. I did not have a lot of free time. I had nineteen burner phones and my own little segregated plywood hut where I locked myself for eighteen hours each day, in whispered conversation with Taliban who could be bought. Or with Afghans who were playing the Taliban and maybe playing me. Or listening, through various means, to conversations people were having elsewhere.

Every word I heard was translated by Razik, a twenty-one-year-old son of Afghan immigrants. He was a poli sci/philosophy double major at Utah State. He had taken a leave of absence to contract as a TS translator, get a fat paycheck, and see his parents’ country. We were the only guys on the COP allowed in the plywood hut.

My job taught me how to see people. Nothing worked if you didn’t see people on their own terms, in their own world, without projecting. That, broadly, was step one; the seeing. Learning what “on their own terms” meant for each person.

Step two was sustaining the effort, once you had seen, to keep from deciding one Taliban traitor was good and the other bad. Suspend all of that. Just learn the moral physics in each personal universe you encounter. Watch the war, money, drugs, fear, desire, whatever, act on people like the tubes and mallets and see-saws of a Rube Goldberg machine; you cannot hate or love the marbles as they are shot and dropped. Just watch.

Razik said this one night, sitting in the hut: “If we don’t see them like God sees them, we are going to make a lot of big mistakes.”

Razik said a lot of things like that.

Earlier that day we’d given the final piece of ID for a strike. A source followed a target back to Lashkar Rud from a funeral, on the phone with Razik the whole way. Our bird was above him. We told the drone-jockey to go for it when the truck stopped. A GBU-12 busted the truck open, cutting the man in two. We saw on the drone’s feed that he was split, unusually, from side to side. His body-pieces lay beside the truck like two dark red gingerbread men.

“What do you feel like talking about Raz?”

“What do you mean?” Razik’s favorite thing about his job was that it allowed him to sit in a room with a cigar and have someone (me) listen to him opine on the fallenness of man while leafing through other people’s secrets. He saw our lives as dramatic and rich.

“I know that was a monologue-starter. It’s ok. Go on.” Razik hadn’t seen a lot of messy kills.

“No monologue! I just think…I mean, look at us.” He shrugged around at the big silver ears (this is what we called our signals kit), the filing cabinets made of MRE boxes, the four computers. “This is as close to all-seeing as I’ve ever been.”

“So you mean we can see a lot?”

“Yes. And we dole out death.”

This was typical Razik. The doling of death. All-seeing. Give him time and he’d end up at the grim weight of noblesse oblige on young shoulders at the edge of the empire. The self-importance of young men is even more annoying when it’s a little bit justified.

“Well I guess we death-dole. But we don’t see them like God. If we did, we’d love them, right? I think that’s a C.S. Lewis quote maybe. At least we’d judge them before we smote them.”

“I judge them. I judge them every time. You don’t think gingerbread man deserved it?” The drone’s sensor still hovered over the two crimson, man-shaped splotches.

Deserve. The D word. The grunts used that word. Texans born in 1999 tucking photos of the twin towers into their armor. Most of the operators used the D word too. I was more interested in Razik sleeping well than arguing the possibility of a universe full of crimes no court could ever punish.

“Fuck yeah he deserved it. He burned that guy to death in Sangin, remember? Fuck that dead fucking idiot.”

So that’s sort of how my deployment went.


There are words, and there is logos. What would be the point of trying to describe seeing Charlotte when I walked off the plane in Riverside? There is the world, and there is a secret realm, where I reside, ruled by a tiny goddess I worship with every breath. I held her and Kat on the cold tarmac in January and murmured thank you thank you thank you thank you.


I EAS’d a month after returning. Kat did coding for an airline from home. She locked herself in Charlotte’s room for hours every day and I became, for the moment, a full-time dad.

The decision to get a dog always works out. Charlotte and Pierre were best friends. Pierre had his chihuahua moments of manic rage, but they were directed at dogs passing by our front door, disembodied birdsong, or nothing at all: he would snarl at thin air and fight incomprehensible running battles through our hallway. The first time he did this after my return, Charlotte whispered, solemnly, “He’s protecting us from ghosts.”

Mostly though, Pierre stayed at Charlotte’s side and lovingly pushed his weight into her, trying to score a belly-rub. He accepted me into their pack, which I think was an important litmus test for Charlotte as she weighed the reappearance of a man who’d been away for a third of her life.

We walked twice a day. West to the Beach, North to the train stop, Southeast back home. The longest part of the loop was the Northward walk along a dirt trail off the beach. Charlotte held Pierre’s leash, weaving through leathery surfers and LA day trippers while I walked behind her and listened to her musings on dogs she had seen that day, the weather, the best kinds of goldfish crackers, how she hoped to swim faster.

The crowd thinned the closer you got to the train stop. The final quarter-mile before the station abutted an oceanfront park with boulder formations right at the waterline. At the right time of day, you could convince yourself that you were not in the twenty-first century; the landscape was primeval and raw save the trail. The boulders were trailer-size, with black and orange pebbles on the beach. Palms were the only vegetation. They flailed crazily when the wind was up. Charlotte was a budding dinosaur-lover and informed me the first few times we crossed the park that ferns predated trees and existed in the time before time. I told her palms are not ferns. She told me to check my sources. We called the rocky park our time machine.

We stopped one day in the time machine to savor the wildness of the wind, the deranged dancing of the palms, and the rattling hiss of beach grit blown against the rock-face.

It was a Tuesday morning and the trail was empty. No noise but the waves and the wind. I took Charlotte’s hand. She gave me a little headbutt just above my knee. It was her way of kissing at this point in getting acquainted. Pierre was at the max range of his extendable leash, looking back at us with eyes hooded and ears relaxed.

Some inchoate tingle made me raise my eyes. A raptor rode a current directly above us. It sat still on the breeze. The sky was so bright the bird looked ink-black, but I sensed its eyes on Pierre.

Charlotte followed my gaze. She said “Look, Daddy” when she saw the bird. I don’t know if Charlotte knew what birds like that eat. I don’t know if she’d ever compared herself or the ones she loved to the dead racoons on the side of the street or wondered what Pierre’s four sharp canines were actually for. But the universe gives some innate, terrible knowledge to small creatures. My daughter was agile. Never taking her eyes off the bird, she canted her hips and ran to Pierre like a cornerback in coverage. She knelt and put her arms around him.

I picked up an orange rock a little smaller than my fist. I leaned back and whipped it overhand. A puff of feathers, a little squawk, and the bird spun down and inland. I was in the Marine Corps for ten years and I have never felt like more of a badass.

I turned to Charlotte, gave her a thumbs-up, and smiled like an idiot.

She stood up over Pierre, who was oblivious, but I think enjoyed the surprise hug. She looked warily skyward and then back to me. She said one word the rest of the walk home:



Kat always worked in Charlotte’s room, headphones on, Chopin playing, zero distractions, until the day was over. In the late afternoon Charlotte and I would sit in the living room and do puzzles and say we were waiting for Mommy to come home. When Kat opened the door, we’d make a big fuss, how was your commute, welcome home, etc. etc. Very fun.

Charlotte and I sat on the ground facing each other. Our legs made an uneven diamond. A puzzle and Pierre lay between us. Pierre was on his back between my legs with his head almost in my lap.

Charlotte said “Daddy, did you know the bird was going to eat Pierre? The one you threw the rock at?”

“I thought it was likely that the bird was going to eat Pierre. I didn’t know for sure.”

If saying nothing was my secret weapon for marriage, respecting Char’s intelligence was my secret weapon for parenting. I cannot describe my pride when I realized Charlotte could ponder some difference between what I thought would happen and what was definitely going to happen. She was not yet four years old.

“I thought I should throw the rock to make sure the bird didn’t eat Pierre.”

Charlotte looked at Pierre. His sort-of-gross-but-still-cute hairless Chihuahua belly faced straight up. She reach across the puzzle, grabbed Pierre’s hind legs, and pulled him to her. Pierre was limp as a fish and probably thought, correctly, that the gesture augured petting.

Charlotte put her hands on his chest and said, seriously, “I love you Pierre.”


Kat “came home.” I grilled chicken and baked some sweet potatoes. We sat at the kitchen table and tore off little pieces of chicken to give Pierre while we ate. Charlotte was nearing proficiency in knife/fork operation. She sawed away with her yellow plastic knife and said:

“Who killed this chicken?”

Kat suppressed a guffaw. I said nothing. Kat:

“A farmer did, I think, sweetie. Why?”

“How long did the chicken live?”

Kat raised an eyebrow.

“I don’t know.”

Charlotte looked from the chicken on her plate to Pierre and back.

Kat, soothingly:

“But the farm where they kept this chicken was very nice. It’s outside. There are fields and nice outside stuff. The chickens can walk around as much as they want. They’re very good lives for chickens. The cages are nice and big. Like houses, really. Little chicken houses.”

I didn’t correct Kat. I had switched groceries back to Vons and was no longer buying free-range.

“Sweetheart some of the other farms are so bad. So, so bad. They keep the chickens in tiny little cages and they never stand up and they’re fed through tubes. This farm was so nice…”

And so on. Kat repeated herself a few more times while Charlotte glued her eyes to Pierre, who was, unhelpfully, standing on his hind legs with his forefeet tucked up against his chest. He could not have looked more like a little flightless dog-bird. Kat faltered the third time she was describing the nice cages and I could tell it was my turn to tag in.

“Charlotte, the farm was great. Really fantastic. And the chickens had good lives.” Kat gave a half nod and finally ate the piece she’d had on her fork during her monologue.

I don’t know why I kept going.

“And if you think about it Char, the chickens, they don’t die until they’re nice and old. And it’s not a bad thing to die when you’re old enough, and you’re ready, and you’ve had a good life. It’s good to die then. And the best thing is, the chickens aren’t dying without a purpose. They’re dying for us, so that we can eat, and everyone else too. Isn’t that good. It’s like a gift. I think that’s what makes it okay.”

Charlotte, slowly:

“How do the chickens know when they’re ready to die? How do they check that the chicken is ready to die before they kill it?”

Charlotte looked from Pierre to me.

“Was the bird today ready to die?”

Kat raised an eyebrow. I explained: “I threw a rock to scare off a hawk that was sizing up Pierre.”

Charlotte said:

“Daddy hit it in the chest and killed it. I wish we were eating that bird instead of this chicken. The bird deserved to die for wanting to eat Pierre. Pierre is not ready to die.”

I did not know what to say to that.

Kat and I lay in bed.

I asked, “Does Charlotte actually know about death yet? I think I got ahead of myself with the chicken thing…”

Kat, quietly: “She knows about death. I’ve explained roadkill and stuff that washed up on the beach.”

“Got it.”



“Do not say things you don’t believe in front of Charlotte.”

I didn’t know what to say to that either.


Photography Credit: Jason Rice

Jonathan Pucci is a law student in Richmond, Virginia. He served on active duty in the Marine Corps for eight years and deployed twice to Afghanistan.