Steve was coping with loneliness and the lingering effects of multiple combat deployments after he retired from the Army. The veteran’s new best friend is a blind and deaf dog who spent nearly 200 days in Texas shelters before he found his home.
The bonds of brotherhood
Steve grew up in Wisconsin and enlisted in the Army National Guard in 1985. As the son of a Korean War era veteran, he knew early on that he wanted to serve his country.
“I think it was always my calling. When I was a kid growing up, I played Army all the time. It was something that I always wanted to do,” he says.
Guardsmen typically hold civilian jobs or attend college while maintaining their military training on a part-time basis. While that balance between military and civilian life is a benefit that appeals to many, Steve found it unfulfilling.
“I just wasn’t getting out of it what I thought I would. I wanted something more.”
In 1997, Steve made the military his full-time job. He joined the active duty Army and served ten years as a heavy anti-armor infantryman. Soldiers in this military occupational specialty (MOS) are responsible for assaulting and destroying enemy tanks, armored vehicles, emplacements, and weapons.
Steve enjoyed his work and cherished the bonds he built with his brothers in arms.
“I went all over the world with that job, and there’s nothing like the brotherhood in an infantry squad,” he shares. “You’re always looking out for each other.”
Invisible wounds of war
The job of an infantryman involves great risk, especially during times of conflict. Steve deployed to the Middle East in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) in 2003. While there he sustained injuries from an improvised explosive device (IED) blast.
To this day, the combat veteran copes with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). These invisible wounds of war can have long-term effects on one’s memory, mood, and ability to focus. Other symptoms may include headaches, vision, and hearing problems.
Ironically, it was a non-service related injury that would ultimately change the direction of the soldier’s career.
Steve was stationed in Germany after his 15-month deployment to Iraq. He enjoyed exploring the country on his mountain bike while he was not at work. On one treacherous outing he crashed and was thrown from his bike, causing significant damage to his wrist.
The injury left Steve unable to adequately perform his infantry duties. He completed the reclassification process and changed his MOS to military intelligence (MI).
The soldier was reluctant to move on from his infantry squad, but had no choice. To his surprise the job transition proved to be more gratifying than he initially expected.
“The time I spent in the infantry really helped me progress within my career in military intelligence,” he says. “It helped me understand what ground commanders wanted and needed as far as intelligence.”
Like father, like sons
Steve continued serving on overseas operations after transferring to the intelligence field. He would ultimately complete two more combat deployments. But it was a unique peacekeeping mission that he remembers most fondly.
“I worked on the Sinai Peninsula with the multinational force and observers. We were there to enforce the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel,” he recalls. “We made sure there were no treaty violations between the two countries.”
While Steve’s MI career was thriving, so was his life on the home front. The soldier married and, in time, he and his wife decided to start a family. In 2011, the couple completed the requisite paperwork and training to become licensed foster parents.
A short time later, Steve deployed to the Middle East for six months. The soon-to-be parents were matched with a pair of siblings much quicker than they anticipated.
“My wife got the call while I was in Afghanistan. She started fostering them and I actually didn’t meet them until I came home,” he shares.
At the time, Nathan and Cole were two years-old and one year-old, respectively. Nathan has Coats’ disease – a rare retinal disorder – and has been blind in his left eye since birth.
Additionally, both of the biological brothers had been diagnosed with Autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Children with ASD do not look different from their peers, but often behave, communicate, interact, and learn differently.
Steve lives with the lingering – and invisible- effects of TBI and PTSD, and relates to his sons’ special needs.
The couple officially adopted the boys two years later. Little did they know that a blind and deaf dog would soon join their special family.
A man of his word
Steve retired in January 2020 after 13 years in the National Guard and 23 years of active duty service. He traveled all over the world during a career that spanned four decades. He ultimately settled in central Texas, an hourlong drive away from his sons and now ex-wife.
For many veterans the transition from military to civilian life is a challenging time. Steve missed the camaraderie he shared with fellow soldiers. And his boys live too far away to spend time with every day.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic further compounded the new retiree’s feelings of isolation. And it made finding a job more difficult.
“I was really struggling when I first got out of the military,” Steve recalls. “I needed someone to hang out with, to do something with.”
The veteran turned his thoughts to the many ways a companion pet can help alleviate loneliness. Steve grew up with animals, and adopted several cats and dogs while married. He was ready for a pet of his own.
However – even more important – Steve wanted to honor a pact he made with Nathan and Cole, now 11 and 10 years-old, respectively.
“I promised the boys I would get a dog someday, one they could have at my house so there was something there when they came to see me, too.”
Patience is a virtue
Steve started his search for a four-legged friend online and eventually visited a shelter near his home. While he did not find “the one” that day, he did pick up a Pets for Patriots brochure.
The former intelligence analyst went online to learn about our mission and work. He was impressed with the many benefits our program provides for both veterans and shelter pets.
“There are a lot of organizations out there that I think you have to be leery of,” he says, “but I could tell this wasn’t one of them.”
Steve was willing to take his time, though admits having been disappointed at not finding the right dog right away. The retired combat veteran knew it was especially important to find a dog who would be good with his two sons.
“It can take a while to find the perfect dog or cat. You just have to take your time because it’s not something you want to rush into.”
In the meantime Steve found something else to keep him busy while his search for a furry companion rolled on: a job.
Payback is a blessing
Steve currently works as a contractor instructing military intelligence analysts on the use of MI computer systems. He enjoys working with soldiers again, and the job reaffirms something he learned years prior.
“It took me a long time to realize what my passion was, but I eventually figured out why I was in the military,” he shares. “My passion is helping soldiers – taking care of them, training them, mentoring them.”
Steve now sees that guiding others over the years has come back to repay him in unexpected ways.
“The biggest reward is that even though I’m now retired, I still have soldiers that hit me up and ask for advice. They check in on me to see how I’m doing. Some hit me up and tell me I was really hard on them and now they know they needed that, and thank me for it.”
Returning to work helped Steve establish a new battle rhythm. It added much-needed structure and social interaction to his days and reignited his passion for working with soldiers.
But the Army veteran still went home at the end of the day a lonely man.
“Geez, this dog would fit right in with us”
Steve checked local shelter websites regularly until one particular photo and profile stopped him in his tracks. He remembers the day vividly, because it just so happened to be Veterans Day.
Ernie was born on a ranch, deaf and nearly blind. The rancher surrendered him to a shelter, fearing that he could not provide a puppy with such challenges with a safe environment.
“I read about his special needs and thought, ‘Geez, this dog would fit right in with us.’ My kids have special needs. I’m kind of deaf and blind and have special needs. I really wanted to meet him.”
At the time the year-old cattle dog mix was in the care of Texas Humane Heroes, where he had been transferred after spending months at another Texas shelter.
Since 2013 Texas Humane Heroes has offered veterans in our program half-priced adoptions through shelter locations in Leander and Killeen.
Steve spent time with Ernie at the shelter. They went for walks and played together. The search was over.
The retired combat veteran learned that Ernie spent nearly 200 days homeless – most of his very young life – between Texas Humane Heroes and the previous shelter from which he was transferred.
“He was very skittish, and it took him some time to warm up,” he recalls. “But I just knew we were a good fit.”
Blind and deaf dog is the perfect battle buddy
Steve arranged to foster the special needs pup while he applied to our program. Once home together, the veteran’s first order of business was renaming his new companion.
“I thought with my military background and the rank I had, it was only fitting to have a Private, someone I could boss around,” he jokes.
Steve and Private were officially adopted in December 2020. By then, Private had fully adjusted to his new living space and the pair found an innovative way to communicate.
“If I need to get his attention, I’ll snap my fingers, and that will usually work,” Steve says. “Or if he’s near something I can tap on he will respond to the vibration.”
Private has a resourceful way of getting Steve’s attention, too.
“He loves being pet. His sweet spot is right underneath his chin, where his snout meets his neck. He loves to be rubbed there,” the veteran shares. “If I stop petting him, he paws at me for more. It’s like he’s saying, ‘How dare you stop?’”
“He’s my buddy”
Private has other charming habits. He likes to find Steve’s shoes and toss them in the air. In the middle of the night he’ll get up to play. He does well on hikes, navigating downed trees and logs with ease. And then there is the door.
“For a dog that is vision-impaired he really likes to look out the door,” Steve says.
However, Private seems to love riding in the car most of all. So much so that Steve has to walk on Private’s right side to prevent him from making a beeline towards the car every time they leave the house.
“He is obsessed with riding in the car with me,” he says. “He always wants to get in the car and go for a ride.”
Steve gets a kick out of his battle buddy’s quirks and would not change him a bit. That Private is blind and deaf makes him all the more perfect.
“Private is my companion,” he says. “He’s my buddy.”
“…like a rockstar”
Steve introduced Nathan and Cole to Private slowly. It took the skittish dog some time to warm up, but the trio gets along well.
“They know that he has special needs just like they do. They have a special bond in that way,” he shares. “They know where to pet him and to not come at him too fast. They’re very good with him and he’s very good with them.”
The Army veteran returned recently to Texas Humane Heroes with his sons and Private. Beforehand, they shopped for pet necessities and toys to donate to the shelter. It was a fun day for everyone, including their blind and deaf dog.
“Private is like a rockstar there. The staff loved him when he was there, and they were so excited to see him again,” Steve says. “Everyone took pictures of him and sent them to their friends who weren’t working that day. The boys thought they were in the company of a real rockstar because of the attention Private was getting.”
To Steve, Private is more than a rockstar; the special needs pup is his rock. The once-lonely veteran now enjoys the special camaraderie that a shelter dog can provide.
“He’s such a joy and comfort to be around,” the retiree says. “He has given me that bit of companionship I was missing.”
A natural way to stress less
Steve dedicated so much of his life in service to our nation. He endured multiple combat tours and copes with the lingering impacts of TBI and PTSD. But his most important achievement is being a devoted father to two young boys who – thanks to him – have a very special canine sibling.
It seems fitting that Steve adopted a blind and deaf dog. It takes a person of unique compassion, patience, and a loving heart to choose a pet with lifelong challenges. And Private knows it.
“He’s a little attention monger,” he says.
Steve encourages other lonely veterans to consider adopting a pet. But if adopting is not an option, simply spending time at a shelter has great benefits, too.
“Go to a shelter and visit the dogs or cats. It’s a great way to relieve stress and anxiety, and you leave there feeling happy,” he says, adding, “I would never get a dog that wasn’t a shelter dog.”
The retired combat veteran recommends other veterans apply to Pets for Patriots when they are ready to adopt.
“It’s such a personable organization that really has the best interests of veterans and shelter animals in their minds and hearts.”