Dana grappled with anxiety and addiction after serving in the military, and felt adrift. But a canine cruelty survivor is helping the Navy veteran navigate life’s rough seas – one day at a time.
Headstrong and Navy bound
Dana grew up in Central Florida with a mix of step- and half-siblings from her parents’ second marriages. A self-described “black sheep,” Dana admits that she “always felt different from everybody.”
Even as a young girl, Dana was headstrong and unafraid to challenge anyone – even her preschool teacher.
“My mom always said I should have been an attorney,” she jokes.
Dana was as driven as she was independent-minded. She earned her GED at age 16 and started community college before reaching adulthood. Yet Dana felt lost, even after earning her associates degree.
“After a couple years of living out of my parents’ house, I just needed some stability and direction in my life,” she says.
The teenager’s plan was to become a pilot in the military because it seemed exciting. By chance, the Air Force recruiter was out to lunch when Dana visited their office.
However, a Navy recruiter took notice of Dana and seized the opportunity to sway her seaward. He convinced her the Navy was a better path for her life.
A promise kept
Dana visited family around the country before taking the plunge with the Navy. She visited her dad first in Washington State, then her aunt and uncle in Southern California. Her uncle was a naval officer and former instructor at the United States Naval Academy.
“There’s a lot of military in my family,” she shares.
Dana’s aunt and uncle were proud of her as the first of the younger generation in her family to serve, and saw fit to see her off to boot camp.
Boot camp was certainly a challenge to Dana’s fierce independence, but she persevered.
“It was a lot of taming I guess that goes on in boot camp,” she shares. “You just suck it up – you suck it up and become the tough person that you need to be.”
Dana faced a few hurdles during her training. She failed one of the written exams and was sent back to retake the test. In addition, she had to repeat a week of intense training with another company. She passed the second time, much to her relief.
However, Dana encountered another setback. Once it was time to be assigned a military occupational specialty, or MOS, she was shocked to see that she was given a four-year assignment as a boiler technician.
“First, that doesn’t even sound fun,” she says, “[and] second, I only signed up for two years.”
During her meeting with the Navy recruiter Dana made clear that she desired a two-year assignment. Now at the end of her training, Dana felt misled. She considered leaving altogether.
A quick phone call to the recruiter changed Dana’s mind. He kept his promise and advocated on her behalf to secure a two-year assignment. It was still as a boiler technician, but Dana was content enough to continue on her new path of service.
Hard work and paperwork
Dana regards her accomplishments in the Navy as unremarkable.
“I didn’t go off to war and jump out of planes,” she says, “I’m not some miraculous story.”
Being a boiler technician was not glamorous or glorious, but nonetheless essential. These professionals are tasked with the maintenance, operation, and repairs to marine boilers and fire room machinery.
“They all tease the girls because the girls shouldn’t be down there getting their hands dirty,” she recalls.
Dana certainly was not afraid to work hard and was recognized for her diligence. She was selected to be the log room yeoman.
“I ended up being in charge of all of the engineering department logs,” she explains, “preparing the eight o’clock reports for the commanding officer.”
The young sailor enjoyed having some autonomy in her new position.
“I only had some higher ups that I worked for, a chief and an officer.”
No passport, no problem
Dana’s most cherished memories in the Navy were made outside of the boiler room, but the job sometimes postponed adventures off the ship.
“The engineering department was the worst,” she jokes, “We were the first ones to go in and the last ones to leave.”
Despite delays, Dana made incredible memories around the world. She celebrated her 21st birthday in Sicily, enjoyed the beach in Cuba, and found the perfect puzzle ring for her sister in a Turkish market. Dana developed an appreciation for life outside of her own.
“There are so many different ways to live than how we live here [in the United States],” she says.
Through her tour of duty in the Navy Dana relished the opportunities to experience life in other lands.
Dana felt unmoored after she separated from the Navy at the end of her tour of duty. She moved in for a brief time with her sister in Virginia, who subsequently married and moved away.
Once again, Dana felt adrift.
“I had gone through some bouts of anxiety,” she shares. “I was just trying to make some progress in life.”
The young veteran returned to Florida – the place that felt most like home – but was at a loss for what to do.
“Maybe I took the wrong path because I still feel lost,” she confides.
The sudden lack of purpose left Dana with chronic anxiety. She turned to alcohol and drugs to self-medicate. Life became even harder when she became a single mother when her daughter was only three years old.
The young veteran struggled to keep her family afloat.
“I feel like I’ve been going uphill, uphill, uphill,” she laments. “It always felt like our bottom was dropping out from under us.”
In 2018 Dana and her daughter were on the verge of homelessness. While veterans comprise about six percent of the country’s population they account for at least eight percent of its homeless.
The Navy veteran sought help from HUD-VASH, a federal government housing program for military veterans.
Support from HUD-VAH helped Dana stabilize her life. Today, she is free of drugs and alcohol, has earned two associates degrees, raised a great daughter, has a loving blended family, and employers who treat her “like gold.”
In addition, Dana finally received access to Veterans Affairs benefits – 18 years after separating from the Navy. She had been unaware that medical benefits were even available to her.
Dana is grateful for the life she has fought to live. Yet she still struggles at times with her past decisions.
“It’s been a journey,” she confides.
The Navy veteran has since found healthier ways to manage her life. In time that would include caring for a canine cruelty survivor.
In 2021 Dana mourned the loss of her beloved 11 year-old miniature Pinscher, Pumpkin.
“I took him with me everywhere, it was really rough on me when he passed,” she says.
While Pumpkin was irreplaceable, Dana knew she wanted another dog in her life. She discovered Pets for Patriots online and applied.
Following her approval into our program Dana visited one of our newer adoption partners, Orange County Animal Services. She made the long trip despite the shelter not being among the closest of our partners to her home.
Orange County Animal Services joined our free partner network just a few months prior to Dana’s visit and waives adoption fees for veterans in our program.
During that first, fateful trip the Navy veteran was smitten by a then two year-old dog named Ollie.
“Ollie did something for me when I saw him,” she says. “It was a sealed deal the first day I walked in there.”
The canine cruelty survivor
However, there was a hitch. Dana would learn that the French Bulldog – Jack Russell mix was a cruelty survivor and not yet available for adoption.
Ollie was the victim of an animal hoarder and legal action was pending against his former owner. The petite pup could not be adopted to anyone until the court case resolved.
Shelter staff told Dana to check back at another time.
In late August Dana decided to make the three-hour drive to Orlando once again only to learn that Ollie was gone. He was placed in a foster home, and it was unclear when – or if – the cruelty survivor would be eligible for adoption.
Crestfallen, the Navy veteran broke down on the spot. Tears streamed down her face.
Yet Dana was determined and pleaded for help. A shelter supervisor put her in touch with Ollie’s foster mother, who in turn took Dana’s contact information.
Dana had little hope that she would ever hear from Ollie’s foster, who may have wanted the darling dog for herself.
“There’s no way somebody wouldn’t want this dog,” she insists.
However, plenty of tears and prayers later Dana received an email while she was at work. It was from the shelter, asking if she was still interested to adopt Ollie.
With her boss’ blessing Dana left work early and made the long trip to fetch Ollie.
Dana arrived at the foster home to find Ollie in need of a little grooming, but his spirit was sparkling.
“This little raggedy-looking dog was just the happiest guy ever.”
The canine cruelty survivor has an insatiable zest for life. Perhaps most surprising, he loves people – despite having suffered at the hands of those who were supposed to protect him.
“He still has that happy loving spirit,” Dana says. “I don’t know if he would have ever lost that. Nothing could have broke [sic] him.”
Ollie is animated, energetic, entertaining, and eager to learn tricks. He likes to express his love with a few pooch smooches. Dana confides that she never let a dog kiss her in the face before, but welcomes Ollie’s affection.
However, this pint-sized canine cruelty survivor has some issues.
The scruffy dog’s crimes range from silly to serious. He once urinated in the car while Dana was driving. On another occasion he nipped a friend’s dog on the nose.
Dana wishes that Ollie was more comfortable around other dogs. She suspects that he spent his hard luck life fending for himself. Perhaps he had to compete with the other hoarding victims for food.
But the Navy veteran has nothing but empathy for her new shipmate. Like Ollie, she is a little rough around the edges. And – like Ollie – she is resilient.
Pickles, potatoes, and peanut butter
Companion pet adoption changes the lives of both people and pets – for the better. This is equally true for Dana and Ollie.
The duo have started to take daily bike rides. Dana bought five bike baskets before finding one that was “just right” for Ollie.
The Navy veteran is somewhat philosophical on how her life with Ollie has evolved.
“Had my sister not given me that bike I would probably not be out riding a bike,” she says. “Had I not had him [Ollie], I probably would not enjoy riding the bike as much as I do.”
The pair often take night rides together with Ollie in his perfectly chosen basket. On their adventures they stop often at an Italian ice shop where the impossibly cute cruelty survivor enjoys a peanut butter ‘pup cup.’
Dana loves discovering and indulging all of Ollie’s delights. Beyond bike rides and peanut butter, it turns out that he is a very adventurous eater.
“Every piece of fruit, everything that’s healthy – he will eat it,” Dana says, with the exception of pickles and red potatoes.
“…the sweetest little thing”
Ollie’s previous life – hoarded with more than 30 other dogs – is now a distant memory. And his presence in Dana’s life made an almost immediate impact on her physical and emotional health.
“I love my alone time, but I also love having something there,” Dana shares. “He does that for me. He makes me feel like I am not alone.”
Bringing home a new pet is both a joyous experience, and often a bit stressful at first. Dana is grateful not only for the ‘welcome home’ gift card we provide, but for our routine outreach to see how she and Ollie are faring.
“I appreciated [Pets for Patriots] holding my hand, and the respect I felt and the comfort I felt,” she says. “There’s [is] a great cause and I really have appreciated the very personal connections.”
Dana hopes other veterans learn about Pets for Patriots so they can experience the same comfort that Ollie has brought to her life. Having survived substance abuse and working on her recovery, she has a unique appreciation for what her petite pup has overcome.
“He’s the sweetest little thing,” she shares. “He brings joy and love to my heart.”