As an Army veteran of the Vietnam War who had worked tirelessly his entire life, Jerome found himself struggling to stay busy during retirement. Work was his only antidote for keeping the dark memories of war at bay and, with his wife Suzanne still working, he became accustomed to spending most of his days alone with her dog Lexi.
Yet Jerome wanted to a companion of his own – a loyal friend he could adopt and call “my dog.”
Fixing helos in Nam
After studying auto mechanics and engine repair at Wolverine Trade School in Detroit, Jerome joined the Army in 1966 at the age of 18. He then spent an extra year in school concentrating on sheet metal repair, which would later become his focus while serving in the Vietnam War. When his military training was complete, Jerome was sent to Germany for a year, where he worked on and overhauled airplanes.
He returned to the United States for a 30-day leave, at which point he was levied to go to Vietnam. Jerome recalls his nighttime descent, the darkness allowing him to “see the war going on, all the explosions and tracers.” He was assigned to the 195th Assault Helicopter Company – known as “Sky Chiefs, Ghost Riders and Thunder Chickens” – and still vividly recalls the first moments of his assignment: finding himself last in line to receive supplies from the company’s quartermaster and being told that they had run out of M-16 rifles. As an alternative, Jerome was given a comparably tiny handgun – a .38 Special – which he carried for nearly his entire time in Vietnam.
Jerome served as a Specialist 4 (or Spec 4) during the war, performing sheet metal repair on helicopters and leading a group of less experienced repairmen. Unlike his airplane work in Germany, there was a more apparent purpose to mending helicopters in Vietnam.
“You were working on the ships to keep them going so your buddies would have something good to fly in and could make it back.”
The young soldier flew in a Firefly on several occasions – a helicopter outfitted with powerful searchlights that was used to track down targets. He was qualified to shoot, so Jerome occasionally took on the role of gunner, filling in for pilots who were too burned out to continue. He recalls the gunners he replaced had the “thousand-yard stare:” a far-away, blank look of sheer exhaustion. Jerome later saw this same look in the eyes of Scruffy, a seven-year-old Boston Terrier and Shih Tzu mix whose elderly owners surrendered him when they could no longer afford his care.
Back home, gratitude was hard to find
Like many Vietnam veterans, Jerome did not receive the warmest of homecomings when he came back to the states in 1969, a stark contrast to the experiences of veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Seems like these guys are getting a parade,” he says, “and I’m not getting a parade.”
One particularly bittersweet reception took place while he was waiting to apply for a driver’s license. An employee noticed his uniform and brought him to the front of the line as a kind gesture, but this act did not go over well with the rest of the crowd.
“It was like nobody’s around, all my buddies were gone,” he says. “I didn’t have a driver’s license or nothing. None of my clothes fit me, I lost a lot of weight. I was down to 130 pounds, I had a 29-inch waist at the time and a 13 inch neck. I’ll never forget that.”
A more fond memory was that of a UPS delivery man who thanked him for his service, decades after the end of the war. This was the first time he had ever heard those words directed at him. Yet despite his chilly homecoming, the Vietnam veteran believes that it is an honor to serve in the military.
“I think it’s important that people today do serve their country,” he says, adding that he thinks a minimum two-year military commitment should be compulsory for people to “get their heads screwed on right” and “do some growing up.”
Rejecting his father’s suggestion to collect unemployment and spend a year traveling, the Army veteran’s first order of business was finding a job to keep his mind occupied and focused on something other than Vietnam. He spent about six months doing automobile prototype work before moving on to production work at a dealership, and then started a career in antique car restoration. He was later hired by General Motors to write service repair manuals.
Now retired, one of Jerome’s favorite hobbies is flying his antique plane, an interest he shares with his wife.
“I can go flying and I don’t think about anything. Flying,” he says, “I’m free up there.”
A four-legged buddy left behind
In November 2013, Jerome ventured into a local Petco where the Michigan Humane Society maintains a satellite adoption center and immediately noticed Scruffy, named Bernie at the time. The adult dog was still in shock at having been surrendered by an elderly couple who could no longer afford to keep him.
“He was sitting in his cage, you know, just sitting there, just looking at nothing. And I said, ‘He’s got that thousand-yard stare.’ He didn’t recognize anybody.”
One quick walk was all it took to convince the Army veteran that this dog was his guy; the connection between them was immediate. After bringing Lexi to the store to ensure that the dogs would get along the adoption was made official. Bernie became Scruffy – a fitting name for the dog with the slightly unkempt, too-long hair.
Thanks to a pet adoption counselor at the Michigan Humane Society’s Rochester Hills location, Jerome learned about Pets for Patriots and the benefits it provides to veterans who adopt through its nationwide partner network. Not only was Scruffy’s adoption fee reduced, but Jerome receives discounts on veterinary fees at the MHS full-service clinic, a generous contribution from Pets for Patriots and sponsor-provided discounts on various pet supplies – all designed to make pet parenting affordable over the life of the pet.
The ties that bind
Still in shock from being separated from the only family he had ever known, Scruffy was at first gripped with fear. Jerome remembers finding him one day in the most unlikely place.
“We had a little wicker basket we were going to toss out when we moved, so when we got Scruffy – and he was all curled up, didn’t know where the hell he was – he was afraid, curled up tightly,” says Jerome. “I put that basket down and he went right in there and curled up, and he would spend the day in there pretty much.”
Having served in the Vietnam war, Jerome is himself no stranger to fear. Decades later, he is haunted by memories of his experiences and recognizes that his new four-legged companion is dealing with fears of his own. With time, both are healing – together – and these days Scruffy fills his veteran’s days with companionship, activity and love.
“He keeps me busy,” Jerome says of his new cookie-loving pal. “You know, if I’m sitting on the couch, he’ll come up with his little short nose and start poking me and want to crawl up on me. So he’s another entity in my life that’s asking, ‘Pay attention to me, take care of me.’”
Scruffy’s demands do not bother the Vietnam veteran one bit; quite the contrary. They’re a constant reminder that man and dog need each other equally, and both were saved through adoption.
“Because he’s looking for attention from me,” says Jerome, “and I’m looking for attention from him, too.”
Are you or do you know a veteran who would benefit from a companion pet? Learn how Pets for Patriots can help.