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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Canine Hostage Tale Dogs U.S. Bureaucrats

WASHINGTON -- The Hemphill children are expecting their dog home in Vienna, Virginia, for Christmas, and their dad doesn't know what to say to them anymore.


"How do you explain to 5-, 9-, 12-year-olds," asked Gregory Hemphill, "that the U.S. Army has taken your dog and a colonel is holding her for ransom?"


This is in many ways a foreign tale -- about a Rhodesian ridgeback left behind by a U.S. Foreign Service family fleeing tribal warfare between the Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda.


Yet it is also a peculiarly American -- and quintessentially Washington -- story, what with the miles of bureaucratic paperwork, the inter-agency rivalries and the alphabet soup of players: DIA, AID, DOD and lots of people who were being Evac'd or on TDY, sometimes even TDY-NIC (Temporary Duty -- Not in Country). To say nothing of dog urine on the carpets of the U.S Embassy in Rwanda, which complicated an already-complex situation.


The bottom line is this: A U.S. Army colonel in Rwanda ended up with the Hemphills' pet and for nearly a year has declined to return her. More recently, he notified the Hemphills by letter that he would turn the dog over "to your designated rep here" once he received confirmation from his bank that they had sent him "USD [U.S. dollars] 1,760." He calculated that's what he is owed because "the dog eats around $160 per month."


Hemphill, an employee of the Agency for International Development, and his wife, Gita Dihr, were dumbfounded that it could cost $160 a month to feed a dog in a country where a domestic worker feeds a family of eight on $40 a month. They were even more amazed when a Defense Intelligence Agency official told them that perhaps the charge was fair, given that his research indicated it costs $300 a month to feed a dog in the United States -- and he was talking about a small dog.


"Then again, maybe I shouldn't be surprised," Hemphill said. "After all, this is the agency that did the body counts in Vietnam and estimated the strength of the Soviet Union."


Hemphill said the big, slightly goofy-looking dog he is trying to bring home for Christmas opens doors with her paw and sits at tea parties as if she were an invited guest. She is named Dushenka. At least that's what the Hemphills say. Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Odom calls her the General, judging from his June 13 communique.


The letter on Embassy of the United States stationery accuses the Hemphills of abandoning their dog in Rwanda, and continued: "That period of abandonment was not kind to the General. She still reacts strangely when she hears loud noises, especially gunfire. I am pleased to say that the General is nevertheless doing well and has a happy home with me."


The five Hemphills last saw her in April 1994, when for three days they all huddled together under mattresses in their hallway. The home they were assigned by AID turned out to have an unfortunate location halfway up a hill in the Rwandan capital of Kigali. Hutu soldiers had put machine-gun emplacements at the top of the hill, while the rebel Tutsis had set up camp at the bottom.


When the Hemphills received a radio communication that American citizens were to be evacuated from Kigali, with only what they could carry in two small bags, they rushed to make the best arrangements possible for Dushenka and Chainsaw, their golden retriever.


Under cover of darkness, Hemphill and Dihr crawled through the yard, cut a hole in their neighbors' fence and asked the neighbors' cook to care for the dogs. As the sky flashed red with gunfire, they went back and forth through the fence, taking their leftover food and giving the cook all their Rwandan money.


They fled in a four-car convoy, passing drunken, red-eyed men holding machetes, machine guns, spears and clubs. Every 10 minutes, it seemed, their car was stopped and searched; several times, firearms were pointed at their heads.


The family made it to Burundi, then to Virginia, where Hemphill, who was controller of the AID mission in Rwanda, now works on an AID project involving Eastern Europe.


Once safely home, the children suffered nightmares and received counseling. Having lost most of their childhood possessions in the evacuation, they were ecstatic when they heard in mid-July 1994 that U.S. Ambassador David Rawson had found Dushenka living with squatters in the family's former home.


The squatters claimed everything in the abandoned house. But they were happy to give up two things: Dushenka and Hemphill's collection of old records.


Rawson offered to take Dushenka to the embassy until she could be flown to America. In a related machination, Hemphill flew to Rwanda with the rabies vaccine Dushenka was required to have 30 days before shipment. Arranging a flight was tricky in a country without phone service or mail.


A Dec. 27, 1994, letter from a State Department official offers insight into some of the typical hangups: "Last I heard was that GSO in Kigali had your TA and was all geared up to have it shipped but Casey wanted an amendment before she signed off on the P.O. for packing." Translation: The general service officer had the travel authorization but needed a change in a purchase order. It was also last December that the ambassador's wife returned to Rwanda with the ambassador's own ridgebacks, and apparently there were problems. According to the Hemphills, Dushenka began marking her territory on embassy rugs, which prompted the ambassador to give the dog to Colonel Odom. Neither Odom nor Rawson responded to letters faxed to the embassy by a reporter seeking explanation. A State Department spokeswoman said that she was looking into the matter.


In May, the Hemphills finally received a message from Odom, who wrote that they had abandoned their dog. He had saved her, he said, and planned to keep her. He added that the Hemphills had not offered compensation for the care of the animal, whose worth he then estimated at $600 per month, or "$500 per month above the cost of food."


Hemphill figured that Odom, who identified himself as a defense attache, was simply misinformed and sent back a three-page letter, pleading on behalf of his children. His youngest, he said, "marks each day [without Dushenka] on a calendar." The children "planted a cherry blossom tree in our back yard for Chainsaw's memory. We cannot add Dushenka to our losses."


Their check for $240 to Odom for Dushenka's food was returned in June. The dog, he wrote, "is happier here than she would be elsewhere." In October, he offered to return the dog for $1,760.


A spokesman for the Department of Defense said the Pentagon considers the matter a private issue between Odom and Hemphill. Hemphill doesn't see it that way and has asked Representative John Edward Porter, a member of the foreign operations subcommittee who is from his home state, to intervene.


"It seems like the U.S. Army should have a way to prevent its soldiers from confiscating household pets," Hemphill said.