“It’s unlike anything else,” Eleby says of his time with the Operational Detachment Alpha group.
“I lost a couple dudes over there,” Eleby explains. “It was pretty tough on all of us.”
It was during those difficult times that Eleby really needed a friend to lean on, and he found one in the most unexpected of places. During his time overseas, serving nearly 6,000 miles away from his home in upstate New York, Eleby met a little white puppy who would change his life forever.
“We were at a place and those people [that were] there didn’t really deserve to have any dogs in the first place, among other things,” Eleby says. “I saw him after seeing the other dogs, and just how they treat their other dogs over there, it’s atrocious. They are guard dogs. They don’t eat much.”
He says that the guard dogs he saw were also chained up, beaten, and made to be ferocious — a life he couldn’t bear to imagine for the tiny 3-week-old white puppy he found that day.
As soon as Eleby and the puppy locked eyes, it was a done deal. Eleby knew he couldn’t leave the pup behind.
“He was literally looking up, like, ‘what are you going to do man?’ ya know, like what are you going to do next? It’s your call so,” Eleby remembers.
Eleby knew what he’d need to do to save that puppy from a life of pain and hardship.
“I didn’t ask anybody,” he says. “I just took him.”
The bond Eleby felt with the pup he’d rescued was instant. He gave the little white puffball a name — Yakkul.
At first, it was quite a challenge to get little Yakkul healthy, Eleby remembers. Yakkul had a hard time eating during his first weeks on base, so Eleby fed his new four-legged friend chewed beef jerky from his rations.
During their time together in Afghanistan, Yakkul also took care of Eleby, who sometimes struggled to cope with the stress and danger involved with his Special Forces missions. After particularly trying days on the job, Eleby says it was always Yakkul who could cheer him up.
“We got really close. It was bad. We ran twice as many missions as anyone else in the country,” Eleby says. “So coming home to him put it out of my mind.”
Eleby knew he wanted to bring Yakkul back to the states with him, no matter what. But at a price tag of more than $4,000, Eleby wondered just how he would pay to transport Yakkul back home to Valatie.
Luckily, that’s when his family, friends, and well-wishers back at ABC News 10, the local news station back in upstate New York, kicked into action. During chief meteorologist Steve Caporizzo’s popular Pet Connection segment, he spread the word about Aaron Eleby and his canine companion Yakkul. Suddenly, donations came flooding in to help bring Yakkul home to Valatie. Eleby says he couldn’t believe how quick people came to his aid.
“We were actually gone for two days straight on a mission,” he remembers, “and I came back and the money was raised.”
To prepare for his trip to the U.S., Yakkul was brought two hours away from Eleby’s home base to Nowzad, a British rescue group based in Afghanistan. Yakkul received an armed military escort during the dangerous drive.
Then, finally, Yakkul made the 6,000-mile flight to New York’s JFK Airport, where the pup met Eleby’s mom and dad for the first time. Two weeks later, when Eleby joined his buddy in the states, Eleby says it was hard to hide his emotions.
“When I walked in and saw him there,” Eleby says of Yakkul, “ it was awesome. I’m not gonna say a tear came to my eye, but it was hiding back there.”
While Eleby is finishing his tour overseas, the now-7-month-old Yakkul will live with Eleby’s parents.