A death row dog gave a new reason for living to a veteran dealing with serious invisible injuries. Ronald is an Air Force veteran grateful for the help he received in adopting this brilliant and devoted black Lab, who was once on a shelter’s kill list.
An historical legacy and duty to serve
After graduating from Lincoln University with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, Ronald decided to join the Air Force. His father was a Tuskegee Airman and the “Air Force was part of our family service.” Ronald felt compelled to continue the tradition. After enlisting in October of 1976, he began basic training that November at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.
Ronald recalls his first days at Lackland as a set of new experiences. He and his peers dressed in plain unlettered green fatigues and were called “rainbows” because they represented so many different backgrounds.
“We didn’t have our names or anything that said U.S. Air Force on them. That was something we had to earn as we went further in basic training,” he adds.
Ronald started out as an aircraft mechanic. He was stationed with the 514th Military Airlift Wing, McGuire Air Force Base, for six months before he was sent to Air Force ROTC at Pennsylvania State University. There he would complete another round of basic training and two years of training before receiving a commission in the Air Force. For the next four years he served as an Airborne Support Officer with the 552nd Airborne Warning and Control Wing (AWACS), whose primary mission was to provide airborne warning and control for aircraft and battlefield commanders. He served with AWACS during Operation Urgent Fury.
After serving with AWACS Ronald was assigned to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as a Security Police Officer (Reservist). He worked mostly with civilians planning for disaster preparedness and the continuation of government in cases of a nuclear strike.
Ronald continued to serve with FEMA until he was honorably discharged in 1996. He returned to his hometown of Philadelphia, initially unaware of the challenges he would face after his service.
A wound is opened, and so is a door
Ronald suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) during his service when his skull was fractured in a military accident. The military continued to monitor his health and the injury did not cause him much trouble while he was on active duty. He was, however, experiencing stress, headaches, dizziness and mood swings. These symptoms only worsened as he aged.
Over time Ronald had a harder time dealing with the rapid mood swings he was experiencing. They were disrupting his way of life and became impossible to ignore.
“I wasn’t able to deal with it on my own anymore,” he shares.
Ronald was diagnosed by the Veterans Administration (VA) as suffering from a service connected bipolar disorder, a condition that has had very serious implications for him. He receives monthly counseling and medications from the VA.
Fortunately for Ronald, a “miracle in the form of a bright black Labrador” would soon find a way into his life.
Journey to Magai
It all started when Ronald met a man named Mark Streiber with Main Line Deputy Dog, an organization that helps people train their own service animals. Mark was searching for someone to adopt a Labrador named Mack who had been saved from death row by the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society (PAWS). At the time, Ronald was looking for a different breed of dog.
“I didn’t even know what a Lab was,” he recounts. “I knew nothing about his breed or about him. All I knew was that Mr. Streiber told me he had a dog.”
Despite his hesitation, Ronald agreed to meet Mack, and around the same time he discovered Pets for Patriots.
Although another shelter closer to Ronald’s home partnered with Pets for Patriots, at the time PAWS did not. In light of the circumstances, however, we worked with PAWS to make the adoption possible. And with the help provided by Main Line Deputy Dog and their training manual Ronald was able to train Mack, a shelter dog once destined for death, to be his service animal.
“It was amazing how it worked out,” he marvels, adding that Pets for Patriots’ priority was “how do I get this animal to this veteran.”
Although a small number of rescue pets are suitable to be trained for service, most have neither the aptitude nor attitude for this type of work. It can be extremely stressful for a pet to be expected to work in any environment or public setting where his handler may take him. For this and many other reasons, Pets for Patriots does not endorse training companion pets for service despite the occasional success with these types of efforts.
Ronald and Magai were among the fortunate few. The big black Lab became a beacon of light and hope for his veteran.
Death row dog with a higher purpose: giving an Air Force veteran a new reason for living
Ronald was painfully aware of the deeper, more spiritual meaning that brought this death row dog into his life. Wanting his name to reflect his character, Ronald then chose to change Mack’s name to Magai.
“He’s like my kindred spirit. He’s the one that has made my life possible,” he says. “I hesitate to think what may have happened to me without Magai.”
Just as the Biblical Magai saved the life of the baby Jesus, this modern day Magai saved Ronald’s life by granting him relief from his long-ago injury. From greeting him every day at his front door and offering him comfort when he needs it, Magai has been this Air Force veteran’s most faithful friend.
“He’ll go play with his toys, and he will make sure to leave his toys to check on me to make sure that I’m okay,” he says, and adds with a smile in his voice, “he nudges me when he feels I’ve been working too long. He reminds when to take my medications and he wakes me when I am having difficulty sleeping. He knows when I am crashing and guards me from myself.”
Ronald is modest when he discusses the effect he has on Magai’s life, though he knows that they share a special relationship.
“I think now he has a home, he has a yard where he can play,” he says. “This last week I got him a dog house with his name on it, even though he won’t go in it.”
There is no denying that Ronald not only changed, but saved Magai’s life. He still shakes when he thinks about how his dog would have been killed if it were not for PAWS. Several months after Ronald and Magai were adopted PAWS joined Pets for Patriots as a shelter partner.
Once a death row dog, Magi saves his veteran from suicide
It is estimated that 22 veterans take their lives daily, despite intense focus on the epidemic of military suicide.
“I’m not one of the 22,” says Ronald. “I’m not, because I have Magai. I’m a survivor.”
Ronald shares that many veterans find animals easier to relate to because people bring “expectations, demands [and] requirements that you can’t meet.” Companion animals, on the other hand, offer unconditional love and acceptance. For Ronald, Magai is not only a friend; he is family. The former death row dog is perhaps the most important relationship in this Air Force veteran’s life.
“A lot of us come home and we are closed off,” he says. “Relationships are a struggle for us.”
The big dog, on the other hand, is easy company.
“He’ll lay on the bed next to me before I go to sleep, and then he goes to his bed. He watches me to make sure I sleep soundly. That just means so much.”
Ronald wants other veterans to understand that while adopting a pet is a commitment, the impact it can have on one’s life is invaluable.
“I think that with 22 veterans killing themselves every day, for Pets for Patriots to realize that we need to place someone with these veterans,” he says. “I don’t think even Beth (at Pets for Patriots) knows how wonderful that is.”
Ronald is testament to the healing powers of the most overlooked, undervalued companion pets, millions of whom enter shelters every year. While he still copes with the aftermath of his service-connected injury, he does so with a four-legged friend who does not judge, but only gives love. Magai has given Ronald the inspiration to dedicate himself to serving veterans’ mental health. The veteran now serves as a mental health therapist, and each year he participates in an annual walk to bring awareness to the tragedy of veteran suicide.
In ways large and small, this Air Force veteran’s adopted service animal has been life-changing.
“More, he has saved my life,” he says. “It’s been a real blessing.”