group of military people standing in front of flags, one holding up a certificate.

U.S. Army Captain Amber Small ’22 is recognized as the Volunteer of the Quarter at Fort Drum in Watertown where she is stationed.

A soldier’s (dog) story

It wasn’t part of the plan when she joined the U.S. Army’s JAG Corps, but for Amber Small ’21, military service took on a secondary mission.

Small, an Army Captain who represents soldiers in disciplinary proceedings as a defense attorney, is stationed at Fort Drum, near Watertown, N.Y. But for six months last year she was deployed with her colleagues in the 10th Mountain Division as part of the Operation European Assure, Deter, and Reinforce, in support of the United States’ military partnerships with European allies. The deployment took them to Mihail Kogălniceanu Air Base in eastern Romania, on the Black Sea.

The work, Small says, involved extensive trainings with Romanian and other coalition troops, talking about the Army’s system of military justice and how it could be applied in various situations. “I worked with other soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division to showcase what we did and how we operated as a Division in different scenarios,” she says, “and to show these troops how they could operate similarly.”

Small with puppies.

Learn more about Puppy Rescue Mission.

But it was outside the classroom that Small found herself drawn to a different kind of service.

 “One of the first things I noticed at the base,” she says, “was that there were a lot of cats and dogs around”—animals that had been abandoned by their owners near the base, or strays from the nearby city of Constanța drawn by aromas from the dining hall. They knew there was food available, and if they hung around, they knew they would get fed.

“A lot of them used to be pets, so they were very friendly, and they provided comfort to many of the soldiers who were deployed with me. I very quickly decided I wanted to help these animals if I could.”

So she got in touch with Puppy Rescue Mission, a non-profit organization that helps deployed service members adopt unsheltered animals and bring them home to the United States. And she became, in her words, “sort of a middle manager” for making those adoptions happen—coordinating the needed vaccinations for the animals and their transportation, by commercial airline, to the United States.

“If there was a Soldier who had bonded with an animal, I connected them with this rescue organization,” Small says. “I got animals to the veterinarian for medical care,” including one dog who was discovered to have a broken leg, had surgery and is now happily living in the States.

She also was the animals’ top promotional agent among her fellow soldiers: putting up posters around the base to advertise Puppy Rescue Mission’s services, talking about its mission, approaching anybody petting a dog or cat to ask if they wanted to adopt. “Basically, it was a part-time job,” she says.

The result was that over 40 dogs and cats went home with a soldier—giving the chance at a new life in America.

For her efforts, Small—herself a dog mom to four canines—was named Volunteer of the Quarter at Fort Drum late last year. But the real rewards, she says, have come in the form of updates from the new pet owners. “I still keep in contact with a lot of the people I helped,” she says. “They send me updates, cute pictures and videos. And that’s really special.”