BILLINGS - The bond between a dog and a human can often be summed up in one word: Friendship.
For a young Billings soldier who recently traveled overseas for deployment, this bond somehow became more.
Meet Stephen Bonnecarrere, an active-duty Army reserve officer with the National Guard.
“I thought it would be cool to serve my country. This was my first deployment, so I didn’t really know what to expect,” he said.
In December of 2019, he was deployed to Kuwait and Iraq.
We often refer to those serving our country as heroes. Bonnecarrere, in fact, became a hero to Sugar Cube.
“It’s unlike anything else. It's really cool,” he said. “She came to me at a point in her life when she needed help. And it was like, I could always use a friend but right then, it was like, I really needed her and I think it was just out of that necessity that we were just here for each other and our bonds just have grown stronger.”
Bonnecarrere met Sugar Cube- or as he also calls her, Baby- while recently serving in Kuwait.
“I called her Sugar Cube because she’s white and she’s sweet as a sugar cube.”
His deployment ended in the fall of 2020, and before he came back, Sugar Cube wasn’t always a clean shade of white.
“She was muddy all the time because, I mean, it was so hot over there. But there were pools of water she’d lay down in to cool off,” he said. “A lot of the coworkers would say, 'There’s two dogs on base, one that was really clean and one that was really dirty.' And I would say, 'No, there’s just one,'” he laughed.
Sugar Cube was skinny and living off scraps. As an army officer, Bonnecarrere spent his days at headquarters planning missions. But he couldn’t help but notice the dirty, skinny, and very hungry dog.
“It was really hard because the days I would see her, the days would get up to at least 120 and 130. It was so hot, I can’t imagine anyone having to be outside all day in that, and I would feel bad for her. And it was like, who is taking care of her?” he said.
So he started to take care of her.
“I started feeding her and we got into a pattern where she would always show up and be there on time.”
That pattern of meeting up for a few table scraps after or before he headed to work grew into something more, a friendship of sorts.
“She was so timid around people, and at that point she would approach me and actually let me pet her, which was really cool. But other people would try to approach her and she just wouldn’t have it,” he said.
Sugar Cube grew to trust Bonnecarrere, and their relationship started to grow into a bond.
“It was definitely like a symbiotic relationship. It was like she was obviously in need of, you know, love and attention, but I was too.”
It was Bonnecarrere’s first tour in Iraq, and he admits he missed Montana and his family quite a bit. He says he also started to depend on the companionship of Sugar Cube just as much as she depended on him.
But also at work was reality.
“You can’t explain to an animal like, 'Hey, it’s been a great 10 months but I got to go now, hope you find someone else.' It was like she always came to me, she knew where I lived, she followed me to work, so I didn’t even know how to break that off or find someone to take care of her,” he said.
Bonnecarrere reached out to an organization called SPCA International, a global animal rescue.
“I had heard that this situation isn’t unique to me," he said. “There are a lot of service members that have brought dogs home from the past, and I was like, okay, how do I do that?”
He filled out the paperwork and waited.
Finally, Operation Baghdad Pups came through by sponsoring the cost of vet checkups, vaccinations, and the flight for Sugar Cube to a new home in Montana.
Sugar Cube beat Bonnecarrere home to Billings by three days.
“I had to know in my heart that I did everything that I could to try to bring her home.”
Like Sugar Cube, the life of a dog in Iraq is all about survival.
“It’s very much a kill or be killed, you know. You need to fight to survive for food and whatnot and I think a lot of that alpha female that comes out of her is just nature of what she’s had to do to survive at this point,” he said.
Many times, when we think of a hero we think of a man in a cape. But for Sugar Cube, heroism came in the form of a young soldier from Montana.
“When she got back home with me, our first big October snow she just, I don’t know, she thinks it's cold sand. She just loves it. She will just run around and jump in it,” he said.
Bonnecarrere says her life now is simple with walks and naps in the sunshine.
“She’s definitely spoiled. She won’t let anyone get near her food bowl. I think that’s just a lot of that nature she’s grown up with.”
For Bonnecarrere and Sugar Cube, the force of fate was already at work.
“Just being over there and the experience, you know, we went through some stuff and you know you talk with your family, but it’s like they’ll never know what that place was like or what you were going through at that time and period in your life.”