TAMPA, FL (RNN) – There was plenty of love to go around after a U.S. soldier and the dog she rescued and adopted in Iraq reunited after seven long months of being without each other.
The reunion between U.S. Army Reserve Sgt. Tracy McKithern and her dog Erby happened Wednesday at the Tampa International Airport.
The airport posted video of the emotional event to its Facebook page.
McKithern, a combat photographer from Tampa, FL, loves dogs, so when she found a stray sniffing around the Iraqi base she was stationed at, she fell in love immediately, the U.S. Army reports.
The little dog, later named Erby, and her mom had been wandering around the base for weeks.
Strays are common in the country, and the culture is not kind to them. The dogs were starving, and they were kicked and hit with rocks daily, according to the U.S. Army.
But Erby, covered in scratches and dirt, ran up to McKithern the first time she held out her hand.
"She loved everyone," McKithern said. "She is the sweetest little soul. She came up to me immediately, probably hungry, but gentle. I think she was looking for love more than anything else."
Soldiers from the Italian and German armies her unit was partnered with helped McKithern care for the dogs. They named the little one Erby Kasima after the nearby city Erbil and "Kasima" meaning beauty and elegance in Arabic.
Every time the soldiers returned to base, Erby was waiting for them.
"She ran up to our convoy every day," McKithern said. "She was so tiny she would fall and trip all over herself to get to us."
As the weeks went by, the dogs' wounds began to heal, and they started putting on healthy weight.
Eventually, Erby took to sleeping on the step outside McKithern's quarters, and the soldier says she couldn't leave her behind.
With help from the non-profit Puppy Rescue Mission and crowdfunding, McKithern quickly raised enough money to bring Erby home with her, the U.S. Army reports.
When McKithern finally returned home, the pup was set to follow her several weeks later.
But the soldier had only been home for about a month when she received orders for a 67-day mission that left March 11, the very same day Erby was scheduled to arrive in the United States.
"I couldn't believe it!" McKithern said. "But I'm a soldier first… It killed me that it was going to keep me away from Erby for another two months, but it's an important mission. It will all be worth it in the end."
McKithern's husband met Erby at the airport and drove her home to Tampa, where she patiently waited until she was reunited with her rescuer.
McKithern says they are still hoping someone adopts Erby's mother.