ST. CROIX, U.S. Virgin Islands - Lots of Soldiers bring back a deployment souvenir, but New York Army National Guard Spc. Stefanie DeManincor's souvenir from the U.S. Virgin Islands has four legs, a happily wagging tail, and answers to the name of Ava.
DeManincor, who lives in Scottsville, New York, just south of Rochester, was one of 98 members of the 105th Military Police Company who deployed to the island of St. Croix in September. The MPs were there as part of the New York National Guard's response to the Virgin Islands recovery from Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Operating from a Virgin Islands Police Department station in Frederickstead, the New York MPs conducted patrols, curfew enforcement, and crowd control and set up traffic control points to assist the island's police department.
"We did whatever they needed us to do," said DeManincor, a traditional National Guard Soldier who works at Paychex in Rochester.
Next door to the police station there was roofless abandoned building where a dozen dogs were "hanging out." The Soldiers tried to make friends with the dogs.
One of those dogs was Ava, a six-month old, brown and white, female pit bull mix, that DeManincor first saw wagging her tail at her from a balcony on that building.
"You could just tell how friendly she was," DeManincor said. "She would come up to us and let us pet her. She was the most friendly one."
The dog was covered in fleas and ticks, but DeManincor was won over. Ava was less fearful than the other dogs, DeManincor said, but that made it more likely that she would wander off and get hurt.
DeManincor wanted to adopt the dog and take her home.
But that meant finding the right people.
Fortunately, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals had sent a response team to St. Croix in the wake of the storms to deal with abandoned and stray animals.
DeManincor found Joel Lopez, the ASPCA's director of planning and field operations, who was heading the team on St. Croix. Lopez found Ava on the side of the road eating a bag of potato chips and looking sad. He took Ava to an emergency shelter the ASPCA had established at the request of the Virgin Islands department of Agriculture.
Lopez located the owner of Ava and the other dogs, who surrendered rights to them.
DeManincor visited Ava in the animal shelter, got the dog the required shots, and signed adoption papers for the dog from the shelter.
The next step was to get Ava back to New York from St. Croix.
This problem was solved by retired Navy Cmdr. Sali Gear, a former Navy pilot, a native of St. Croix and a Virginia Beach, Virginia, resident who runs a non-profit organization called Island Dog Rescue.
Island Dog Rescue is basically herself and one other person, Gear said. They work to convince islanders to spay and neuter their dogs, and they also work to find homes on the mainland for unwanted Virgin Islands dogs.
Gear had already chartered a Pilatus plane to fly 20 dogs from St. Croix to Florida. These were "community dogs" for dogs who had an owner but had been separated and needed care. Ava fell into this category.
She was especially happy to help DeManincor bring Ava to her home.
As a veteran herself, and a native of the Virgin Islands, she was really appreciative of the mission that DeManincor and the other 105th MP Company Soldiers were on, Gear said.
So the first stop on Ava's trip to New York was a plane ride from St. Croix to Florida. The next leg of the trip involved putting Ava and three other dogs in a van traveling from Florida to Charleston, South Carolina, where a friend who is a horse trainer kept Ava on her farm.
Gear then flew her own plane from Virginia to South Carolina and brought Ava back to her house in Virginia Beach. She spent time with her dogs, Gear said, and got used to people and other dogs.
"Ava was so loved by everyone," Gear said.
Ava spent two weeks with Gear before DeManincor got back from the deployment to St. Croix. She was ready to drive from Rochester to Virginia Beach to pick up Ava, but Gear had a better solution.
A Navy captain (O-6) offered to fly Ava to State College, Pennsylvania, in his private plane. That cut DeManincor's driving time from 10 hours to 4.
So after three flights, and a few weeks, Ava was with her new owner on Nov. 3.
What Gear and Island Dog Rescue did was tremendous, DeManincor said. She couldn't have afforded to have the dog shipped home on her own, and Gear took the time to send her photographs of Ava while she was still on duty in St. Croix.
Now she and Ava are back home in Scottsville together. Her house is "getting out in the country" so there's plenty of room for Ava to run, DeManincor said.
"Her temperament is amazing for a puppy. She is adjusting well. She loves to play. She has a favorite toy, a stuffed giraffe," DeManincor said.
"I was lucky. It all ended up working out in my favor," DeManincor said.
DeManincor also said she felt lucky to be able to go on the mission to St. Croix.
"The mission was what I feel was a once in a lifetime experience, "she said. "It was a great mission."
"Just being in the unit I have done a lot of cool things. This is probably ranking as the coolest thing I've done," DeManincor said.
"You have to embrace the suck sometimes. But I have gotten a lot of great things out of being in the Army so far," she added.