Like many veterans, Robert struggled to transition from military to civilian life. The lonely Navy veteran could not have imagined that daily walks with an adopted dog would help him reclaim his sense of purpose – and meet his new bride.
A Navy life
Robert grew up in Detroit, Michigan and enlisted in the Navy to serve our nation. Yet life in service was something of a “culture shock” for the young sailor.
“I figured the world did everything the way I did,” he confides. “I lost that mentality quickly, and have lived everywhere from Oahu, Hawaii to La Maddalena, Sardinia and deployed everywhere in between, from Africa to Afghanistan, from Berlin to Mazatlan, Mexico.”
The Navy veteran would devote 20 years of his life to the military before retiring with an honorable discharge.
Through many experiences – or what Robert calls “adventures” – he matured both as a sailor and a man. Robert credits military service with helping him become “a more competent and better rounded person.”
Anyone who devotes two decades to the military is bound to have a boatload of memories.
Robert recalls a deployment to Afghanistan when he served in a small forward operating base during a relief in place (RIP) operation. The departing unit left some stray dogs behind who had become informal sentries on base.
“They would bark and notify us of issues around the HESCO barriers or they caught wind of something they didn’t like, which actually proved useful.”
These animals were not military working dogs and were forbidden on base. But they were good company and loyal companions, so their presence remained a secret.
However, a fellow service member took a shine to one of the dogs. As the end date of the RIP neared the group thought about how they could get the dog out of country and to the United States.
“Well, somehow there was a ridiculously slim possibility this could work, based off a lot of ‘chipped in money’ and an insurmountable quantity of shady promises that must line up perfectly in order for him to be reunited after we depart,” Robert says.
Months went by without so much as an email or phone call as to the dog’s plight. A sense of inevitable sadness set in.
“Feelings of frustration turned to just the acceptance of sad reality,” Robert recalls. “Until one day this guy shows up holding a note with an address that was told to knock on that door and give him his dog. No explanation other than, ‘My cousin promised someone this dog so here it is, and where’s my 50 bucks?'”
“Help someone else”
The culture shock that Robert experienced when he enlisted motivated him to adapt quickly to military life. He immersed himself in his job for years and deployed several times to some of the most far flung corners of the world.
However, the sustained intensity of his work started to exact a terrible toll just as he was preparing to re-enter civilian life.
“My perceptions of people, myself, and my general outlook began to fall apart,” he confides. “I found trust was in short supply from people, especially the more I began to transition towards retirement.”
The lonely Navy veteran felt isolated and unmoored. He recalled a superior who mentored him early in his career, giving him sound counsel for whenever he felt adrift.
“Help someone else,” Robert says. “He really didn’t specify, so I made my own interpretation.”
That someone would be a then four year-old Pit Bull mix in a Virginia animal shelter.
The trials of transition
Robert was coping with financial difficulties in addition to the emotional challenges of separating from service. He was having marital problems and would eventually divorce, but in the meantime his wife was spending his deployment income at will.
The Navy veteran visited our partners Virginia Beach SPCA. The shelter offers veterans in our program 25 percent off adoption fees and access to their low-cost veterinary clinic.
Robert was hopeful to adopt a dog yet prepared for the possibility of being unable to afford to do so.
A shelter staff member told the lonely Navy veteran about their partnership with Pets for Patriots and how our program works. Robert learned about the many benefits we offer to help make pet guardianship affordable for military veterans.
“I was ready for that healthy dose of reality to settle in,” he shares, “but the assistance of Pets for Patriots was able to step in and help Tika and I out.”
Tika – named Diamond at the time – was a then four year-old Pit Bull mix. She entered the shelter at the end of January 2018 and would wait there for three long months until she and her hero set sail.
Two broken souls
Robert struggled to create meaningful social connections after he transitioned from the military. He felt anxious in the company of other people and believed that adopting a companion dog would help. In time he would learn if Tika was up to the task; the dog appeared to have had a rough start to life.
A profound sense of social isolation made it difficult for Robert to be in situations where he might engage with other people. Still, a dog is not going to walk herself.
The lonely Navy veteran found himself in the necessary, if distressing position of having to take Tika outside every day.
“Since I lived in an apartment and [had] no yard, walking my dog truly forced me into a public setting which I was extremely uncomfortable with,” he shares. “Since both of us – Tika and I – were kind of broken, it took some time to learn to trust each other.”
Adoption saves lives at both ends of the leash. Daily walks became a form of therapy and valuable bonding for the pair.
Caring for the wayward Pit Bull summoned profound feelings of camaraderie that, to date, Robert experienced only in the military.
“I had a responsibility to my teammate Tika that I had to put her above my own issues,” he explains. “She was right there next to me when I was having problems and I was there for her also.”
Dogs are wonderful natural therapists because they give us nonthreatening ways to connect with others. Daily walks with Tika opened up a whole new world for Robert – and a new life.
“I was eventually able to engage with people during our walks,” he says, “and on one of those walks I met my wife. Now we are still all best friends!”
Adopting a pet for life
Two decades of military service, numerous deployments, and a withering marriage left Robert on the brink. He followed advice given to him early in his Naval career – help someone – to save the life of a shelter dog. But in doing so he saved himself as well, and a world of possibilities flourished.
Robert believes that other veterans would benefit from pet adoption, but cautions not to make impulsive choices.
“I would definitely recommend the Pets for Patriots program to those who put serious contemplation and discernment to your new teammate,” he says. “Nothing is more disheartening than adopting your new bestie just to realize your work schedule forces you to depend on others for your responsibilities or the dog has too much energy that you can devote when you get home from a grueling day.”
New dog, new life, new wife
Robert has undergone a transformation in the years since he and Tika were adopted. He is newly married and part of a large, blended family – one that includes his once homeless Pit Bull.
“My step kids have been head over heals in love with Tika and have been since they were introduced!” he exclaims. “Tika has been an integral part of our family and we all are bonded together through that mutual love we share for her. We all share in the responsibilities of taking care of her and offer amazing teachable moments about responsibilities to kids that only a much loved family pet can provide.”
Still, the once lonely Navy veteran feels honored that he remains Tika’s person. She always chooses to sit alongside him over other members of the family.
But Robert’s life is not the only one that has been transformed for the better. Tika has thrived since the family moved to the country, where she has a whole new mix of adventures.
“Her hobbies include trying to eat deer poop, stalking through the soybean fields, scaring rabbits and deer, and laying in the tall grass watching what we are up to in the yard.”
The advice to ‘help someone else’ has had a powerful impact on Robert’s life and those around him.
It inspired the retired veteran to save a homeless animal, helped him overcome unease around other people, led him to his new wife, and now made possible a beautiful family.
And at the center of it all is a dog who wants nothing more than to be loved – and go for her daily walks.