‘Ward’s Way:’ Airman finds hope, purpose during deployment

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Teresa J. Cleveland
  • 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

When U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Katie Gar Ward received her deployment orders to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, she said she had no idea what to expect.

“I actually had to look it up on a map,” said the media operations NCO in charge of the 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs office at Joint Base Langley-Eustis.

Although this would be her first deployment, Katie was familiar with the logistics from her husband, Walker Ward’s, eight-month tour in Iraq in 2010.

When it was her turn to serve in October 2014, instead of the danger, conflict and uncertainty her husband experienced, Katie found love in a Bosnian street dog, which inspired her to start a nonprofit to rescue more homeless dogs.

Katie said she knew the nature of her deployment, as well as its impact, would be completely different than Walker’s.

“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,” said Katie. “As newlyweds, I sometimes worried something was going to happen to him and I if was going to be a widow.”

When it came time for Katie’s deployment, Walker, now a civilian, was worried about enduring another separation.

“She’s a strong person, but I knew she was going to struggle with being away from me and the dogs and her family,” said Walker. “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.”

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

“Most of the street dogs in Bosnia are very leery of people, so I knew this dog was different,” said Katie. “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. Katie told Walker her intention was to get the dog, now named Tanzie, to the U.S. 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,” said Walker. “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, Katie befriended local Bosnians 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 Bosnian street dogs to new homes in the U.S., all while still serving on her deployment.

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

“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,” said Katie. “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.”

Katie’s Facebook page and online fundraisers received so much positive feedback, friends and nonprofit organizations encouraged Katie 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,” said Katie. “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."

In February 2018, Katie’s nonprofit 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 8 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 said he believes Katie left for Bosnia with her public affairs mission and came back not only a different person, but 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,” said Walker. “But people who take it a step further to create something that helps the country they were in are probably few and far between.”

Katie 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,” said Katie. “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.”