In 2004/2005, I was was an American soldier deployed in Iraq. As an officer, there are times where you end up getting a little lonelier than some of the other folks as there is always a small need for professional separation. Though if we’re being honest, nearly all deployments are lonely when you miss your family, friends, and home.
I was stationed in Tikrit and lived on a base that had a long stretch of road (about 1.5mi/2.5km). Since often times the days were really hot, I would get up early (around 530am) to go for a run to ensure I would have time to get exercise in for the day and clear my head. So every morning, I would get up just before dawn, step outside the place where I slept, stretch for 5 minutes, run the length of that road and back, stretch for another 10 minutes, then shower and start my day. All in all, this was roughly an hour or so endeavor depending on how I felt, how fast I ran, if I took any detours to lengthen the run, etc. I always started my runs just before first light.
For the first 2–3 weeks of this run, it was as many other parts of the day, a lonely stretch. One morning, about 1/2 way through the first stretch of road, I thought I was being chased by a desert fox. This scared the crap out of me because I was by myself and didn’t think I would fare well against a feral animal. But after about 100 meters of me trying to play it cool, I realized that he was just running along side me and hanging out. So we started chatting. I wouldn’t say he was the best conversationalist, but he was an attentive listener. At the end of the run that day, I said goodbye, and he ran off. It was fun and strange, and I assumed it was a one time thing.
But the next day, I get outside and I’m stretching and the same fox (at least I assume it was the same fox), was standing about 5 meters from me just staring. After I finished stretching, I took off running and the little guy went with me. Same as the day before. We ran that long stretch of road and talked (again mostly me) and then when I got back to where I was sleeping, he hung out for a minute or two while I stretched and then took off. This persisted for the entirety of my deployment in Iraq. After about 2 weeks or so, I started giving him a bite of the energy bar I would eat after stretching. He gently took the food from me (after a few days of me putting it on the ground and backing away first). When I had to sleep off post and would be gone for days at a time, he would still be waiting there for me when I would go back to my morning runs after returning home.
Back to the question of being helped. This animal, as most pets do, gave me companionship in a time where I missed my family, friends, home, girlfriend, etc. It was a relationship that lasted the entire time I was stationed in Iraq and we hung out nearly every day. He was there on the good days and the bad days. He ran with me when it was hot out and freezing cold. He kept coming back even before the daily food handouts started being a regular thing. While it may be a bit of anthropomorphizing, it felt like he was there for the friendship too. Just a lonely soul in a cruel and unforgiving desert (and his fox).
The last day I was able to run, the day before heading out of the country and back home, I actually had some good stuff that I had taken from the chow hall. A little steak and some bacon. After the run, we sat on the ground and I gave him the food. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t shed a tear or two knowing I wasn’t going to see my running buddy again. But we shared the meal, I said goodbye, and he took off just like any other day.
Since this all took place before the time of ubiquitous cellphones, I never got a picture of him. It wasn’t until I returned home that I looked up more information about this guy. It turns out he was a Rüppell’s fox – Wikipedia. This picture looks a lot like him only he was a bit skinnier, had a slightly shorter tail, and furrier paws.
Every time I see a picture of a desert fox like this (which admittedly isn’t often), it reminds of my running buddy and I think of a quote from the great Ron Swanson, “I once worked with a guy for three years and never learned his name. Best friend I ever had. We still never talk sometimes.”
Originally posted on Quora here on November 18, 2019.