A brown-and-white furry face with dark eyes peeked out at Billy Norris from behind a cage door.
Two Southwest Florida International Airport employees had just wheeled the gray dog crate out from the cargo area.
A tail began to wag inside the crate. Norris smiled.
“Hey, man,” Norris said.
He bent down, opened the crate door, and the three-legged dog, Lucky, stepped onto the pavement.
Norris clipped a blue leash onto Lucky’s red collar. The dog hopped into Norris’ arms.
“You made it,” Norris said, rubbing Lucky’s fur. “You made it. He made it all the way here."
The airport reunion Friday came a month after the pair last saw each other, and it took a nonprofit, an online fundraiser and thousands of air miles to make it happen.
Lucky was a stray dog when Norris met him more than seven months ago in the country of Georgia. Norris was deployed in the Eastern European nation as a U.S. Marine.
Dog packs roam free in the streets of Gori, an ancient riverside city in Georgia where Joseph Stalin was born.
Most of the stray dogs wandering Gori are well-fed and healthy, the Marine captain said, but one dog's struggle caught his attention.
“A bone was sticking out of its foot. It couldn’t use it. It was leaving a blood trail everywhere," Norris said.
When the Marine unit left for the capital city of Tbilisi, more than an hour drive from Gori, Norris remembered the stray animal.
“That night, I couldn’t stop thinking about this dog,” Norris said. “I woke up and told my gunnery sergeant, ‘We’re going back tomorrow and getting this dog.’”
It took them about five minutes to find him again, Norris said.
“We go back to the same place, figuring the dog couldn’t get very far dragging its feet around,” Norris said. “It was injured bad and starving but didn’t want to be touched. I had a 50-50 bet it would bite me.”
The gunnery sergeant pulled out beef jerky to lure the dog, Norris said.
“All the (other dogs) catch the scent,” Norris said. “Now we have 25 dogs following us. We can pick up every dog but the one we want. Finally, I just dive in on the skittish one and grab it.”
Fleas and dried blood covered the dog’s fur, but Norris held tight, he said. The van the Marines hired as a transport waited to take them and the dog to Tbilsi.
Norris found a veterinarian in Tbilisi and paid $38 to heal the dog, the Marine said. The dog's front right leg had dead tissue and would be amputated a month later.
“He went from looking friggin’ rough when we found him, like a skeleton,” Norris said. “Then he started eating, and he transformed into this happy dog. I was like, 'I wonder if I could take this thing home?'”
Norris named the dog Lucky.
“A vet tech kept asking what his name was, and I kept saying, ‘I don’t know, it doesn’t have one,’” Norris said. “The vet tech kept saying it was a very lucky dog, so I said, ‘That’s it.’”
Before his deployment ended, Norris failed to find someone in Georgia who would adopt Lucky, Norris said.
So the Marine decided to bring Lucky home to Bonita Springs.
Around the time that Norris was set fly back to the U.S. on a United Airlines flight, the company suspended pet transport after a dog died on one of its planes.
That took away an affordable option, said Norris.
He found a pet courier service that would bring Lucky to Southwest Florida for $4,500, he said.
Norris then turned to an online fundraising website.
“One of the younger Marines told me about GoFundMe.com,” Norris said. “I’d heard about it but thought it was a scam. But I put one up. I got like $1,900 in two days. It was ridiculous.”
Puppy Rescue Mission, a nonprofit based in Texas, heard about Norris’ challenge and stepped in to help.
“We assist military men and women, who are deployed on foreign soil, to get dogs and cats they bond with back to the U.S.,” said Michelle Smith, executive director.
The organization asks for a $1,000 donation to get the process started — some pet transfers can cost more than $6,000 — and their volunteers handle the rest, according to the nonprofit.
A volunteer usually flies to a location and accompanies the dog back to the U.S. But Lucky’s case was a little different, Smith said.
“A woman we know is vacationing in Georgia,” she said. “I guess the mountains are like the Alps. But she was there at the perfect time to pick up Lucky.”
Lucky journeyed from Tbilisi, Georgia, to Istanbul to San Francisco to Atlanta to Fort Myers.
“It’s been a long process, but now he’s an American,” Norris said.
At the Norris family home in Bonita Springs, Lucky joins Norris, Norris’ wife, their cat named Taco and a two-year-old dog, Rosie.
“I’m so happy he’s here,” Norris said. “Lucky made it.”