TAMPA (FOX 13) - Erby had a tough life in Iraq. The pup and her mom were stray dogs, which are not uncommon in the country. They were kicked, hit with rocks daily, and were starving.
One day they were around the Kurdistan Training Coordination Center where U.S. Army Reserve Sgt. Tracy McKithern was stationed for a year. The combat photographer, originally from Tampa, laid her eyes on Erby and said she immediately fell in love with the dirty little white stray, which made their reunion in Tampa even more sweeter.
McKithern was stationed at the a multinational military organization in and around Erbil, from April 2017 to January 2018. Along with soldiers from the Italian and German armies her unit was partnered with, they all started caring for the little dog. They named her Erby Kasima, after nearby Erbil, the largest city in northern Iraq, and "Kasima" being the Arabic name for "beauty and elegance."
The little dog and her mom had been wandering around the base for weeks, McKithern found out. Despite her rough experiences with humans to that point, Erby ran right up to McKithern the first time she held out her hand to the shaky little pup covered in scratches and dirt.
"She loved everyone," said McKithern. "She is the sweetest little soul. She came up to me immediately, probably hungry, but gentle. I think she was looking for love more than anything else."
The coalition soldiers would go on convoys into the surrounding countryside to train Iraqi army units six days a week, with McKithern documenting the missions. Every time they returned to the base, Erby was waiting.
"She ran up to our convoy every day," McKithern recalled. "She was so tiny she would fall and trip all over herself to get to us."
As the end of Sgt. McKithern deployment approached, she started to wonder how she could leave Erby behind when she returned to the U.S.
"One night I posted a pic of us on Facebook, with a caption that read something like 'I wish I could take her home,'" McKithern said. "I went to sleep, woke up and my friends and family had posted links to various rescue groups. I reached out to one of them, the non-profit Puppy Rescue Mission, and they responded immediately. We sent them $1,000 and they set up a crowd fund to get the rest. We needed an additional $3,500."
They raised the rest of the money quickly most of the donations from complete strangers.
McKithern had many preparations to make before she left Iraq so Erby could eventually follow her. Vaccinations, documentation, travel arrangements -- all had to be done somehow, in a war zone, while she was still fulfilling her duties as a soldier.
It seemed like an overwhelming task in an already overwhelming situation. But several Kurdish and German officers who McKithern had befriended on missions stepped in and offered to tie up anything she couldn't get done and get Erby onto the plane. With their help, everything got squared away.
McKithern returned home, and Erby was set to follow her several weeks later.
McKithern had only been home in Florida for about a month when, but the timing turned out not to be in her favor. She received orders for a 67-day mission to Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, leaving March 11, the very same day Erby was scheduled to arrive in America.
"I couldn't believe it!" McKithern said, "but I'm a soldier first...it killed me that it was going to keep me away from Erby for another two months, but it's an important mission. It will all be worth it in the end."
McKithern's husband, Sgt. Wes McKithern -- also a combat cameraman for the 982nd -- met Erby at the JFK Airport and drove her home to Tampa.
On Wednesday, Sgt McKithern returned home and after seven months, reunited with Erby at the airport.
You can follow Erby’s story on Instagram: instagram.com/erby_of_iraq/