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Face of Defense: Airman Finds Hope, Purpose During Deployment

Experiences during a 2014 deployment to Bosnia and Herzogovena for the media operations noncommissioned officer in charge of the 633rd Air Base Wing’s public affairs office here led her to establish what now is a thriving nonprofit organization.

When Air Force Tech. Sgt. Katie Ward received her orders to deploy to Sarajevo, Ward said she had to look it up on a map.

Although this would be her first deployment, her husband, Walker Ward, had served an eight-month tour in Iraq in 2010, so she was familiar with the logistics, she said.

Deployment Concerns

“He had a lot of different missions while he was there, and of course being security forces, there was a lot more risk involved than some other jobs,” Ward said of her husband’s deployment. “As newlyweds, I sometimes worried something was going to happen to him, and I if was going to be a widow.”

Ward’s husband, now a civilian, said he was worried about enduring another separation from his wife.

“She’s a strong person, but I knew she was going to struggle with being away from me and the dogs and her family,” he said. “She wasn’t in a combat zone, but she was still in another country on a military installation and couldn’t be here with the ones who love her most.”

He knew his wife would be focused on the mission, but would need to find her sense of home, he said, so it was no surprise to him when she began feeding a street dog outside the installation.

Finding Tanzie

“Most of the street dogs in Bosnia are very leery of people, so I knew this dog was different,” she said. “She walked up to me, rolled over on her back, tucked in her feet, wagged her tail and just looked at me for affection.”

The couple had daily conversations about the dog, and Ward told her husband she was to get the dog, now named Tanzie, to the United States and find her a good home.

“I pretty much knew she was going to be ours, because once Katie gets attached, there’s no separating them,” Walker Ward said. “It says something about the kind of person she is to bring back a dog from halfway around the world and bring her into our family.”

During her deployment, Ward befriended local people who rescued street dogs. She created a Facebook page and an online fundraiser to help the rescuers purchase food and pay for veterinary treatment for the rescued animals. Partnering with a nonprofit organization through Facebook, she helped send nine street dogs to new homes in the U.S., all while still serving on her deployment.

Once she returned home, Ward said, she struggled to return to life as usual, unable to forget the homeless dogs living on the streets of Sarajevo.

Helping Lost Canines

“When I was on the plane leaving Sarajevo, I had such mixed emotions — I was excited to return home, but I couldn’t get these dogs out of my mind,” she said. “For the first few weeks I was home, I had dreams every night of being in Bosnia with them, and I would still just look for dogs on the street any time I drove anywhere, because that’s what I was used to seeing for the past six months.”

Her Facebook page and online fundraisers received so much positive feedback that friends and nonprofit organizations encouraged Ward to create a nonprofit organization of her own to purchase food, pay veterinary bills and coordinate travel to new homes for rescued Bosnian dogs.

“I was just overwhelmed by the amount of support from friends and family, and just people in general who wanted to find homes for all of these street dogs,” she said. “Within seven months, we had about 800 followers and raised more than $10,000, so we thought the best way to progress even further was to create a nonprofit organization.”

Nonprofit Organization Thrives

In February, Ward’s nonprofit organization celebrated its second anniversary as an official charity. Her efforts have led to the rescue and rehoming of over 200 dogs to the U.S., Canada and eight European countries.

“I’ve been told that’s not a conventional thing to do when you come back from a deployment, but I just can’t imagine how I could’ve come home from that and not done anything, as if it hadn’t affected me in any way,” she said.

Walker Ward said he believes his wife left for Bosnia with her public affairs mission and came back not only as a different person, but also with a newly discovered personal mission: rescuing dogs.

“A lot of people bring back what they learned from their experience with them when they come home — they don’t just forget it and go back to business as usual,” he said. “But people who take it a step further to create something that helps the country they were in are probably few and far between.”

Ward said the people and the animals she met while in Bosnia forever changed her life.

“Never in a million years would I have imagined my life as it is now,” she said. “I sometimes wonder where Tanzie and I both would be if we had never met. Right before I left Bosnia, I noticed the street sign of where I found her read, ‘Ward’s Way.’ We started this whole new crazy life together, all because I drove down that road. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say this path was meant to be.”