The story of Army Staff Sergeant Jesse Knott’s remarkable friendship with a little cat named Koshka made headlines in his hometown of Oregon City and around the nation. Knott was placed in Hutal, a small town in a remote region of southern Afghanistan for roughly a week when the cat caught his attention.
“He seemed to be more trusting of the soldiers than the other (stray) animals, which made it even more difficult later on when I started seeing signs of abuse, likely by those same soldiers,” Knott said. “Once, the cat had what looked like paint in his fur, as if someone had spray-painted it. Then the cat returned with parts of his fur shaved off in a ‘reverse Mohawk’ and some nicks in his skin.”
The last straw came when Knott was enjoying a barbecue and heard a familiar mewing sound. The feral feline emerged from behind a concrete barrier, trailing blood. One of his toe pads had been nearly torn off and was also suffering from what seemed to be a possible hip injury.
Although soldiers are not permitted to keep pets, Knott made room for Koshka in his tiny office.
When he approached his commander, reporting that he had a refugee in his intelligence office, the commander was at first shocked and disapproving. After seeing the cat, however, he left the office and returned a few moments later with an armload of tinned salmon he called “humanitarian aid.”
Under Knott’s protection, the cat became something of a mascot for all the soldiers, as they stopped by the office to play with him. While the soldiers initially thought they were helping the cat, in fact, it was the other way around.
Returning from long and difficult missions and foot patrols of up to 25 miles a day, soldiers would stop by to see Koshka first, before eating or taking a nap. Koshka (whose name means ‘cat’ in Russian) also helped distract Knott from chronic pain caused by injuries he suffered, during a prior deployment in Iraq.
Then on Dec. 8, 2010, a devastating event caused Knott’s world to crumble. A patrol with several of his platoon members was hit by a suicide bomber. Knott was initially supposed to be on that patrol but plans changed at the last minute. Around that same time, his marriage back home was failing.
Anguished and heartbroken, Knott developed a plan to commit suicide and prepared to follow through. Koshka, however, had other ideas.
“I was in my office,” Knott says, “and (the cat) just started purring and head-bonking me, and patting my face with his paw. He climbed up on my shoulders and my head — I just couldn’t get a moment to myself.”
“With tears in my eyes he locked eyes with me, reached out with his paw and pressed it to my lips, then climbed down into my lap curled up and shared the moment with me,” Knott explained to the Clackamas Review.
From then on, Knott’s determination to keep Koshka safe was absolute. “He pulled me out of one of my darkest times so I had to pull him out of one of his darkest places,” Knott told WBTV.
Knott knew he couldn’t leave Afghanistan without Koshka even though military flights wouldn’t allow the cat on board. It took $3000, a very brave Afghan local (who could have been killed by the Taliban for helping an American), and 3 months to get Koshka home. The courageous cat now lives in Oregon City with Knott’s parents and the family has no regrets about all they went through to ensure their feline hero’s safety.
Now working only temporary jobs as a trainer at Fort Lewis, Knott hopes to manage his symptoms to the point where he can attend college. Still intensely loyal to the military, he’d also like to be able to volunteer at the local VA hospital and help veterans.
“To me, the cat represented the innocence of what we were doing in Afghanistan,” he says, “and he was the one thing I had at least a modicum of control over protecting. Even after he’d been abused, he still was able to trust people, he still had that faith, and at that point, I’d lost my faith.”
On Knott and Koshka’s return from war, they enjoyed a swirl of media attention. The two received the Oregon Humane Society’s Diamond Collar Award and Koshka was named the ASPCA cat of the year in 2013.
The story of the bond shared by Koshka and Knott stood out among hundreds of nominations for the awards, which honor human and animal heroes who have helped others in need.
“Staff Sgt. Knott’s story truly touched our hearts, and clearly exemplifies the importance of the human-animal bond,” says the ASPCA’s Lindsay Sklar, senior director for special events.
“It is obvious that Staff Sgt. Knott saved Koshka’s life, but Koshka also saved Staff Sgt. Knott’s life in return.”