Army Vet Embarks On His Own ‘Mission: Impossible’ To Save Hundreds Of Helpless Dogs

Throughout years of military service, Paul Steklenski honed his combat skills. He saw battlefields light up, heard the sounds of war, and suffered and survived all the horrors of armed conflict. But years after he rejoined civilian life, he faced another impossible mission.

After learning healthy dogs in shelters scattered across the United States were sentenced to be put down because of “kill shelter” policies, he knew he had all the tools necessary to save the pooches. The mystery, however, was how exactly he might put those skills to use…

During the 1990s, Paul Steklenski of Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, trained army officers at Fort Knox. The man knew war, and in 2013 — years after he finished his service — the dog lover knew he was missing something in his life.

Paul Steklenski / Facebook

That missing something was a dog of his own! A sweet canine to wag her tail and greet him each morning. So the army veteran went to a local animal shelter to look for the perfect pooch. There, he found the perfect companion — and something else.

First he adopted a dog named Tessa, who’d been brought from a “kill shelter” in Tennessee by van. The idea fascinated him. A dog sentenced to die brought elsewhere by volunteers through a sort of underground railroad? Paul started thinking.

Paul Steklenski / Facebook

“I became so aware and more compassionate to all animals,” Paul said later. Cue the Mission: Impossible theme music because, thinking of all the animals in kill shelters, a mission presented itself to the combat veteran…

His mission, if he chose to accept it, was to liberate dogs imprisoned in kill shelters across state lines. As always, should he fail (or be captured by cats), the dog lovers of the world would be really disappointed in him.

Michigan Humane

The army veteran wasn’t one to turn down a mission — no matter how impossible. So he picked a team (Tessa the dog) and then visualized a plan of attack. First, he considered the mission’s challenges…

To succeed, Paul would have to sneak past the kill shelter’s defenses (okay, just get there); rescue the hostages, and transport them to safe places where they could make families happy. This would need supplies. Financing.

But Paul had been unknowingly preparing for the mission months before ever accepting it. See, in 2013, he started working at a company near his home. Every day on his new commute to work, he passed a small airfield…

Oregon Live

“I don’t know why,” the veteran recalled, “but I just decided one day to go in and sign up for flying lessons.” He obtained his license weeks after adopting Tessa (and shortly after accepting his impossible mission). Somehow, he could use that to help dogs.

CNN

“I thought, this is a way I can use an ability I have to help move a large number of animals in a short amount of time,” Paul said. And to cut down on logistical nightmares, the veteran bought his own personal plane for $70,000.

Flying Fur Animal Rescue via NY Post

Later, in May 2015, Paul founded a non-profit called Flying Fur Animal Rescue. With an investment of a lot of his own cash, he had the supplies and financing. Now, it was mission time (cue that Mission Impossible theme again)!

CNN

Paul and Tessa took off from Pennsylvania and headed south, towards states where kill shelters were everywhere. Once he landed (we can only assume after avoiding detection from enemy radars) shelter operatives met him at the runway.

CNN

These operatives were employees waiting with about a dozen dogs. Working quickly — because lethargy is the enemy of impossible missions — Paul helped them load the dogs into the plane’s storage and the cockpit itself.

6 ABC

We like to imagine that, as Paul cruised down the runway with the rescued dogs, a crew of bad guys chased after the plane, shaking their fists and weapons as the combat veteran took off towards the sunset. But in truth?

It all went smoothly. Paul brought the dogs up north where he found new non-kill shelters, owners, or foster parents for the rescued hostages — uhh — canines. Freeze frame. Mission accomplished…Until Paul received another mission.

Over the next few years, Paul accepted hundreds of missions from self-destructing tape recorders (metaphorically, at least), each a little different from the last. On one mission, he transported 12 dogs; when he landed, 12 families waited to adopt one.

Later, another mission saw him rescue a dog named Henley, right, who’d been abused. The dog feared Paul, but the combat veteran brought him to safety nonetheless. Weeks later, he called Henley’s new owner.

“I just couldn’t let that go,” he said. He wanted to make sure the dog was happy — and in the new life Paul gave him, he was! By August 2017, Paul and Tessa rescued over 700 dogs from kill shelters all across the country. And he loved every minute of it.

“I’m part of them,” he said. “I see it, I experience it. I can remember each flight like it just happened.” But “it’s bittersweet in the sense that you’ve got to spend maybe two hours with them, and they start to bond with you a little bit, and now they’re moving on.”

Still, Paul never passed on a mission. “When it’s something you’re very passionate about,” he said. “I don’t think you really measure the amount of energy or time or sacrifice you put into it. You just do it.”

Paul can certainly attest that the bonds military personnel forge during their service are unbreakable. S0 When another soldier rescued a pup during his tour, he just couldn’t cope with his new friend not going home with him.

After two tours in Afghanistan, Sean Laidlaw (left) figured he could handle anything Syria threw at him. But when the British Army deployed Sean and his comrades in the Royal Engineers in 2018, he leaped into a rescue attempt that he never saw coming.

Facebook / Sean Laidlaw

Sean was an expert at defusing and removing bombs. The Syrian Civil War had ravaged the country over the last several years, especially in the city of Raqqa. While many buildings crumbled around him, others still had undetonated explosives inside. 

Reuters / Erik De Castro

Even when Sean wasn’t on patrol, the army life was a grind. Exciting moments in the camp were few and far between, and troop morale suffered greatly. When Sean got a call to investigate a bombed-out school in February, he was almost grateful.

Tom Bonnett

As Sean patrolled the area, he couldn’t find anything out of the ordinary. When he really focused, however, he thought he could hear a faint whimpering somewhere under the rubble. Sean followed the noise and started digging.

Mercury Press and Media

It was a puppy! The canine, which appeared to be some kind of Asian shepherd mix, backed away from Sean as he reached out. Sean knew he had to do something to help the poor thing, but then a horrific sight made him recoil.

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A few other puppies surrounded the one Sean just found. Tragically, none of them had survived the collapse of the building. Now that the dog lost her family, Sean realized he couldn’t just leave her in the wreckage alone.

Pets 4 Homes

The pup still wouldn’t go near any strangers, so Sean did the sensible thing. He pulled out some water and a couple bites of food, and that was enough to draw the reluctant animal out from her hiding place.

Soon after, the orphaned canine let its guard down and allowed Sean to pick her up. There was an immediate bond. Sean decided to bring her back to base and introduce his new friend to all his squadmates. First, of course, she would need a name.

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Sean called her Barrie, and she soon became a fixture in the Royal Engineers, barely ever leaving Sean’s side. Once she got settled in, Barrie accomplished quite a bit of good as well. 

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The Army interacted with a number of Syrian children, many of whom lost their homes and family members. Amid the chaos and destruction, having a friendly dog roam around made a big difference in their lives.

Times of Israel / Bilal Hussein

Sean also believes that having Barrie around gave him an escape from the stress and trauma of the military life. Whereas some of his comrades developed mental illness or PTSD, Sean at least had an outlet and companion. 

Incredibly grateful to have such a valuable friend, Sean said “I feel like it may come across that I saved Barrie’s life, but I feel like she saved mine.” They got so close that Sean could no longer imagine being apart from Barrie.

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Barrie became such a big member of the team that Sean decided to make it official and sewed together a custom bomb squad vest for Barrie. Aside from being a big fashion statement, the vest kept her protected from danger. However, it turned out that her biggest threat was right around the corner.

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In autumn of 2018, Sean received word that his stint in Syria was almost over. He was going home — but only with one ticket. What would happen to Barrie once he left? He didn’t know if he would ever see his dog again, or even if she would still have a home at the Army base.

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Sean’s comrades celebrated the entire trip back to the United Kingdom, but Barrie weighed heavily on his mind. Then, an idea popped into his head. He remembered hearing about a charity called War Paws that helped reconnect veterans with their military dogs.

War Paws workers seemed confident they could help Sean, but there were no guarantees. They instructed him to go to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris to await the arrival of a military plane. He waited nervously, hoping Barrie would be one of the passengers getting off.

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As the airline staff rolled out a dog crate, Sean recognized a familiar face peering through the door. Barrie made it to Europe after all! Holding back tears of joy, Sean reached out to hand her a gift.

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He got Barrie a new and improved vest! She took a look in the airport mirror to size up her new duds — and her new surroundings. The streets of Raqqa, Syria, were all Barrie had ever known, so Sean hoped she would adjust to British life easily enough.

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With Barrie back in his arms, Sean returned home to Hornchurch, Essex. She settled in immediately — a far cry from the scared puppy that wouldn’t come out of the ruined school. Thanks to a stable home and steady diet, Barrie grew like a weed too!

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A full-grown dog, Barrie continued to live happily with Sean. After going through so much together, there’s no doubt that this pair would never let anything split them apart ever again.

ITV / Ken McKay

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