Vincent knows what it is like to be homeless. So it is no surprise that his life changed the day he met Greta Garbo, an abandoned Pit Bull who needed a lucky break as much as he did.
Rough streets to high seas
Vincent grew up in the Bronx, New York.
“It was kind of a rough and tumble place,” he says. “It was nice whenever I went overseas, though, because everyone’s heard of New York.”
In 1981 Vincent joined the Navy. For the next four years he was stationed on the USS Nimitz, one of the largest aircraft carriers in the world. He spent most of his military career in Virginia and various places along the Mediterranean Sea.
As an aviation storekeeper Vincent enjoyed the excitement and pressure of working on the flight deck. He kept aircraft supplies stocked, organized, and ready to install at a moment’s notice for the ship’s fleet of F-14 Tomcats, A-6 Bombers, and helicopters.
The Navy veteran loved his job so much that he spent most of his off-hours on the flight deck as well.
“I loved watching the flight ops take off and land. It just looks impossible. The ship is moving one way, and the plane is moving another way and trying to land and catch the hook,” he recalls. “I spent all my off-time watching ops. I was obsessed.”
Vincent has an impressive sense of curiosity that served him well in the Navy. His favorites memories from service were the sheer thrill of his job and opportunities to visit several countries in the Mediterranean.
In Israel, Vincent visited Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa. He traveled to ports in Spain and many cities in France, where he loved Toulon, Marseille, and the French Riviera.
“But if I could go back anywhere, it would be Paris,” he says. “Paris was my favorite. I loved the fashion. They had every food you could find. It was crowded like New York, too. And Parisians are like New Yorkers. I felt at home in Paris.”
Tragedy in the Middle East
But what would be Vincent’s most memorable experience from his Navy days is a tragic one.
On October 23, 1983, a suicide bomber drove a truck carrying explosives into the Marine compound in Beirut. The terror attacked killed 241 American personnel, including 220 Marines.
The USS Nimitz was off the coast of the Beirut when the attack occurred. It was the deadliest attack on United States Marines since Iwo Jima.
“We had a Marine attachment on board. You’re scared. You’re doing your job. You keep your focus there, but you’re scared,” Vincent shares. “It was a source of pain for a long time. My mom used to send me copies of The New York Times, so I had news that no one else had. This was long before the Internet. I just remember in times like those everyone just goes to their own feelings. We had 6,000 people on board, which meant 6,000 opinions about what was happening.”
In the aftermath of the attack Vincent devoted himself to his work even more. He appreciated the gravity of his responsibilities and how fellow service members depended on him. But he was unable to share the range of feelings that he was experiencing.
“I just kept it inside and focused on my job,” Vincent says. “That became my way of life. Keeping it inside.”
While this coping strategy may have seemed helpful at the time it would cost the Navy veteran dearly later in life.
The turbulent life of a civilian
In 1985 Vincent separated from service. He returned to New York and started work for the power company.
“I still love New York,” he says proudly.
In time, the Navy veteran got a job in Virginia. He eventually moved to Delaware, where he has worked as a fiber optic technician for 30 years.
But Vincent hit rough waters after separating from service. He felt his life spiraling slowly downward. A divorce deepened his depression and he eventually became homeless. The HUD-VASH program at his local Veteran’s Administration (VA) hospital, however, helped him secure an apartment – and ultimately reclaim his life.
“But I was an introvert. I kept myself sheltered,” he says. “I went to school and the VA, but didn’t do anything else. I was still depressed.”
A therapist at the VA suggested that Vincent get a companion dog to help get him out of the apartment every day. That prompted a series of events that gave Vincent another chance at life.
Finding a kindred spirit in an abandoned Pit Bull
The VA put Vincent in touch with Pets for Patriots. In turn, we connected the Navy veteran with our partners New Leash on Life USA. Through their program inmates learn how to train shelter dogs in basic obedience. It improves inmates’ lives both in and after prison, and improves the adoption potential of homeless dogs.
“They sent me photos and bios of dogs, and if I was interested in any of them, they’d bring them over,” Vincent says.
When Vincent saw a photo of an abandoned Pit Bull mix named Greta Garbo he was drawn immediately to her soft brown eyes.
“She was rescued by the Philadelphia State Penitentiary and the inmates trained the dogs. She graduated. But she didn’t graduate with honors. She still had so much fear and anxiety.”
The pair’s initial meeting did not go well. Greta was aloof and huddled beside her handler. Vincent was disappointed, but determined to find the right dog.
However, the Navy veteran could not get the abandoned Pit Bull out of his mind.
Greta Garbo eyes
“There was something about her eyes. She had these beautiful, soft, caramel colored eyes,” Vincent recalls. “Even though she never came up to me, she kept looking me in the eye, and it seemed like there was something there. She was abandoned on the streets of Philly, in Kensington, [and] that is a really rough neighborhood.”
New Leash on Life USA believed Greta had been used in a dog-fighting ring. This saddened Vincent, and a few days later he asked for another chance to meet her.
For this meeting the Navy veteran was advised to have a special treat on hand.
“They told me to have hot dogs ready this time,” he says. “She came right up to me this time. All she wanted was a little food. And belly rubs.”
Yet it was more than hot dogs and belly rubs that did the trick. The pair bonded over an unspoken understanding that they both endured – and survived – a lot of heartache in their lives.
“She went through a lot in life and I went through a lot in life. And we needed each other,” Vincent observes. “We saw it in each other. You don’t have to explain.”
A new chance at life for person and pet
The Navy veteran felt his life change almost instantly once he adopted Greta in 2015. For starters, after a long day at work he no longer came home to an empty apartment.
“She is always so happy when I come home.”
But perhaps it is the mutual hardships that have made the biggest difference of all.
The once abandoned Pit Bull is able to sense when Vincent needs her most.
“They know when something is wrong,” he says. “When I’m having a rough day, she sits right under me. When we’re together, we’re talking without talking.”
Sometimes it is the little activities of daily life that make the biggest differences.
Vincent and Greta strengthen their bond through daily walks, and these outings help him create relationships with people in his community.
For the love of dog lovers
As it turns out, Greta is no longer the only love interest in Vincent’s life.
Michele has been a long-distance friend for more than 30 years. She and Vincent met in Virginia, and stayed in touch through emails and phone calls when they were apart. While she has always loved animals Michele never knew that Vincent shared her passion for dogs as well.
The Navy veteran would share stories and pictures of Greta with his lifelong friend. In time the pair realized that their relationship was even more profound.
The couple are now newlyweds, living in Delaware. And of course there is Greta. For Michele it was love at first sight when she met this once hapless hound.
And dog makes family
Since being adopted Greta has assumed the role of the baby of the family. She was smitten instantly with Michele’s son when he came home from college for the summer. He has become her big brother.
“When he’s working in the basement, Greta is right there. She even sleeps with him,” Vincent says, adding, “We all spoil her. She has a bed in every room of the house plus the front porch and back porch. If Michele’s in the kitchen, Greta follows her. If I’m working outside, she’s on the porch.”
Vincent is delighted that Greta relishes her role as the one member who holds the family intact. The once abandoned Pit Bull wants nothing more than her family to always be together.
“Wherever we travel Greta goes too. We go to New York to see my mom and dad, Greta goes. We go to see my kids in Virginia, Greta goes,” he says. “If we go to a store, Greta goes too. One of us will stay in the car with her, and she’ll cry until the other one returns. We all have to be together.”
And there are plenty of group hugs – which include Greta, of course – that make the family even stronger.
Take a chance on me
Greta has helped Vincent open up to people, and the Navy veteran gave the adopted dog a family to love and protect. It is not an understatement to say that Greta gave him a new chance at life.
“Now that I have her I couldn’t see a day without her. She’s so much part of my life. I don’t know how I did it without her.”
Vincent is convinced that other veterans who are be struggling would benefit from an adopted pet. He is testament to the healing power of everyday animals who find themselves homeless through no faults of their own. An experience the Navy veteran understands all too well.
“All they want and give is unconditional love. You don’t have to do anything for it,” he says. “She [Greta] doesn’t think about yesterday. [The] thing I like most, Greta had such a hard life…Her life is so great now and it started out so bad.”
“They understand our problems”
Back in 2015 Vincent and Greta were our first adoption in Delaware.
The Navy veteran is proud to share how much that experience gave him back his life. He appreciates Pets for Patriots and our part in his journey.
“They realize that some of us need emotional support. They understand our problems from being in the military,” he says. “They pair you up with an animal that brings joy to your life. If you’re alone and struggling, they can help you. I even call them sometimes, and Beth will hear my voice and say, ‘Hey, Vinnie!’”
Vincent knows that in giving Greta a new chance at life he was getting the same in return. Both were once homeless, both were given an opportunity to get back on their feet.
This Navy veteran and his adopted Pit Bull are survivors.
And Greta has given Vincent his life back in more ways than even he might realize. Every day he is grateful to have her by his side.
“Being with Greta allowed me to open up to people. I was so introverted. I didn’t talk to anyone but my parents,” he shares. “But with Greta you’re outside, people want to talk to her. Everyone started recognizing me. They’d wave. She brought communication to my life. She got me outside again.”