Jennifer was looking for a dog who would fit neatly into her life from the start. The Army veteran soon learned that there are “no easy dogs,” but that rescue animals are worthy of the effort they often require.
Curious and cautious
Jennifer’s military journey started with an interest in public health. She remembers being inspired in middle school by the 1995 film Outbreak, a fictional story in which Army doctors race to contain a deadly virus. Even at her early age she envisioned herself doing something similar in real life.
“The idea was kind of planted,” she recalls.
Both of Jennifer’s parents were sailors, so enlisting in the military was not out of the question. However, Jennifer would not follow their path into the Navy since she did not find the prospect of being at sea or living in tight quarters very appealing.
Still, Jennifer was curious about other branches of service. After high school she pursued an undergraduate degree in biology and kept her options open.
“Military was not like a foreign entity to me,” she explains.
During Jennifer’s freshman year of college a recruiter visited her campus and almost convinced her to join the Army reserve. The 9/11 attacks occurred not long after that encounter.
“The concept of joining the military changed from the time I met her and by the time I signed on the dotted line.”
Jennifer’s parents were worried in light of the uncertainty of war in the Middle East. So she completed her undergraduate degree and earned her masters of science in public health.
A military career seemed all but fated and worthy of Jennifer’s effort.
Immediately upon finishing graduate school Jennifer was offered work at an Army laboratory in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. She felt lucky to have landed a job at such an esteemed institution.
Jennifer had been hired as a contractor and wanted a more secure position. Around the same time she attended a talk about public health jobs in the Army. The opportunities seemed like everything she dreamed about since her middle school days.
“I wanted to do fieldwork,” she says, which these opportunities would require.
Jennifer applied and was accepted into the competitive Army Public Health program. Out of more than one hundred applicants only 16 were chosen. Her military occupational specialty was 72D, an environmental science and engineering officer.
These professionals identify and help mitigate a wide range of public health risks; the imprints of their work are wide ranging. They include scientific research for weaponry, clothing, industrial hygiene, and other areas of Army operations that impact soldiers’ health and safety.
Boots on the ground
It was 2009 when Jennifer was attached to a combat unit that deployed to Iraq. As the only 72D in her unit she was responsible to inspect bases for sanitary issues and sample water for possible contamination.
In addition, the young soldier participated in air sampling that was used as part of longitudinal studies for early detection of potential Gulf War Syndrome.
There was a lot of ground to cover; Jennifer moved often.
“We would try to visit all the bases monthly,” Jennifer recalls. “Things were starting to get spread out. As we were withdrawing, we were covering larger areas.”
There was even more work to be done during the drawdown since Jennifer was tasked to help to train the Iraqi army. She was beyond busy and remains proud of her work there, which was more than worthy of the effort.
“That’s when I felt like I was earning my pie,” she says.
The big freeze
After a year in Iraq Jennifer was excited for where she might end up next.
“I really wanted to go somewhere exotic,” she says, “but they said, ‘we need you in El Paso.’”
Jennifer worked on similar environmental health issues as well as inspections of military food facilities. However, the stakes were not quite as high in Texas as they were in Iraq.
“It’s not as important because we live in America, the water quality is sort of assured,” she explains.
Ever the optimist and with a naturally strategic mind, Jennifer saw the assignment as part of a larger life plan.
“It fit my career progression,” she says.
During one winter in El Paso Jennifer remembers a terrible storm. The pipes in the city froze, impacting the municipal water supply. Jennifer’s superiors trusted her guidance to help get through the crisis.
“Later we are having these meetings to mitigate the freeze,” she says, “and my boss relied on me a lot.”
Destined for doctoring
One day when Jennifer was still stationed in El Paso a stray cat showed up at her doorstep. She named the stealthy visitor Spooky and enjoyed the time they had together to bond.
But in the military one is often on the move. In time the young veteran received deployment orders, so she arranged for Spooky to stay with her parents in Florida.
Jennifer was hopeful for a deployment to Europe, but that did not come to pass.
“My consolation prize was to go to Korea for one year.”
Jennifer enjoyed her time in Korea. While her rank was “a bit lower on the totem pole” than in El Paso, the assignment was worthy of the effort and the work required. Reporting to colonels and generals was an exciting experience.
Nonetheless, Jennifer was ready for a new chapter and her childhood dream of becoming a doctor was still very much alive. While in Korea, she began applying to medical schools and studying for the MCAT® Exam.
At the time, conducting medical school interviews virtually was uncommon, limiting Jennifer’s options. Upon her return stateside she separated from the Army and went to medical school in southern Florida.
In 2017 Jennifer earned her medical degree and completed a residency in preventative medicine in the state of Maryland. She currently reviews clinical trial data for a major government organization.
Sunny dog with a “down face”
During medical school Jennifer was reunited with Spooky and cared for him until he passed in 2021. The cat – who appeared on her doorstop in 2008 and developed kidney disease in his old age – was worthy of her effort during his final years of life.
In time the Army veteran felt she was ready to adopt a companion dog. Her fondness for Spooky was largely due to his dog-like personality.
“I wanted someone to go with me places outside the house,” she explains.
Jennifer began searching local shelters in Maryland just before the pandemic hit. One such shelter was SPCA of Anne Arundel County in Annapolis.
The organization waives adoption fees for veterans in our program who adopt eligible dogs and cats and has made possible more than 75 adoptions through our partnership as of mid-2023.
While browsing the shelter website the young veteran was drawn to a Cattle Dog mix.
Ladie was about three years old at the time and had what Jennifer describes as a “down face” because her photo was a bit sad. She recalls the first words she shared with shelter staff.
“’I need an easy dog.’”
Jennifer would visit the shelter in March 2020, nearly a month after being approved into our program. Ladie – since renamed Sunny – was an exuberant dog who needed out of the shelter.
“I saw Sunny and I was like ‘yep that’s my dog,’” she says.
Putting in the work
Not much was known about Sunny’s background except that she was given up by her previous family. It became rapidly apparent that she had not been exposed to many things in her former home – including other dogs.
“She had a lot of leash aggression and there was no training available with COVID,” Jennifer says. “It was a lot of Googling.”
The early days were not easy. But Jennifer recalls a dog her family had when she was a child, sharing that she had a lot to learn about how to be a good dog guardian.
Sunny was worthy of her effort and she vowed to do right by her new charge.
The ever-strategic Army veteran had a plan.
Jennifer’s twin sister adopted a dog around the same time. The pair would meet at the dog park and let their new pups get acquainted at their own pace. This was but one step towards Jennifer’s goal to reduce Sunny’s anxiety so that she could play with other dogs in the future.
Once pandemic restrictions eased Jennifer was able to get Sunny some professional training. A combination of Jennifer’s persistence and patience has paid off.
“We have gotten to a point where I can just trust her.”
Sunny indeed has proven worthy of Jennifer’s time, patience, and effort.
Just don’t say “fetch”
In time Sunny has proven herself to be an amiable mix of canine adventurer and tranquil home companion.
The rescue dog’s disposition suits Jennifer just fine. It mirrors her own routine of sobering, studious work balanced with fun, outdoor activities.
“She doesn’t need to be super high energy, but she certainly likes to do things,” she says.
Except for fetch, Sunny is pretty much ready for anything.
One of the Army veteran’s first goals was to take Sunny to Pups in the Park, a pet-friendly event at Washington National’s ballpark. The pair have since gone twice and Jennifer plans to continue the tradition.
It took nearly a year-and-a-half for Jennifer to see durable improvement in Sunny’s disposition. Reflections of the dog’s sad online shelter profile are overshadowed by a dog who has found her rightful place in Jennifer’s home.
“I think she’s in an environment that is kind of perfect for her personality,” Jennifer says. “She is a more chill dog. She likes to be in a chill environment.”
Still, Sunny is always up for a little adventure as well.
Sessions at a local dog pool helped Sunny overcome her reluctance to swim. Now she joins Jennifer on standup paddleboard in Chesapeake Bay Harbor. In addition, the duo enjoy hiking or going for a run – just do not ask this dog to play fetch.
While Sunny was something of a ‘pandemic pup’ – adopted when Jennifer was working from home – she has adjusted well to the veteran’s return to the office.
“She can pop out on the patio,” Jennifer says, “which she loves to do.”
Still, the Army veteran makes sure that every day includes some adventure.
“Weekdays maybe we do something in the afternoons,” she shares, “but the weekends are for fun.”
“No easy dogs”
In her heart Jennifer knows that the best things come through hard work; her life is testament to this ethic. And she knows that Sunny was – and is – worthy of her effort.
It took the Army veteran time to realize that she needed to accept her rescue dog just as Sunny accepts her.
“I went through some tears not having an easy dog,” Jennifer admits, “At one point I think I realized there are no easy dogs.”
Jennifer has been rewarded many times over by the patience, love, and persistence she devotes to Sunny. The rescue dog is the gift that continues to give.
“She’s just a true companion,” she shares. “I think the most satisfying thing about adopting a rescue dog, I know her life is better now.”