A rescue dog was on the brink of death until his path crossed with a grieving war veteran. Together they found hope, healing, and a second chance at life.
Inspired by planes
Mike grew up in Glenview, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago and home to a naval air station. During his youth he watched various Navy aircraft take off and land, an experience that would inspire his future career.
“I enjoyed seeing the military planes,” he recalls, “and it led to me becoming a military pilot.”
So in 2001 Mike enlisted in the Ohio National Guard. He completed basic training shortly before the 9/11 terror attacks and the commencement of United States military action in Afghanistan.
“Things kind of dramatically changed once I got back from basic training,” he recalls.
Needless to say, these pivotal events upended life for the young Guardsman who enlisted during peacetime and would eventually be sent to war.
Black Hawk to the rescue
Mike was initially commissioned as an aviation officer and later trained as a medical officer. These professionals must be able to perform under stress and make fast, accurate decisions.
In 2003 Mike was commissioned into the Indiana National Guard. Four years later, during what would be known as ‘the surge,’ he was deployed to Iraq where he served as a UH-60 aeromedical pilot at the helm of a Black Hawk medical evacuation helicopter.
While the Army veteran is humble in describing his work, the experience of helping wounded soldiers made him proud.
“We ran medical missions, picked up wounded solders,” he shares. “I was happy to have a job, to be able to help other soldiers. I really felt like they were the ones doing the hard work and taking the bigger risk. And I was happy to have a job that was important to support them.”
Following a yearlong deployment, the Iraq war veteran returned stateside in 2008 to begin his life anew. In time that would include crossing paths with a homeless dog who was on the brink of death.
From battlefront to home front
Many veterans struggle to translate their military experiences to civilian employment. Mike was luckier than most insofar as he returned to his previous job as a federal employee.
However, the combat veteran’s experiences in Iraq had changed him profoundly.
The man who had dedicated his time at war to supporting others now found himself in need of support.
This led Mike to adopt Rusty, a sweet shelter dog, just a month after his return.
“I credit Rusty for helping me make the transition, you know, back to normal life after Iraq.”
It is not uncommon for veterans to have difficulties transitioning to civilian life after military service. Bridging those two worlds is often harder for those who served in combat or other conflict zones.
Rusty was Mike’s closest companion throughout the Army veteran’s most significant life milestones.
“I adopted him in 2008 and my whole life changed after that,” he shares. “In 2009 I met my now wife, and we got married and had kids. Rusty was there for all that.”
Sadly, after 14 joyful years with Mike, Rusty passed away Memorial Day weekend of 2022. Mike was devastated by the loss.
Search for a new companion
The Army veteran felt a huge void in his heart after Rusty’s passing that eventually another rescue dog would help fill. But finding the right dog for Mike and his family proved to be no easy task.
The helo pilot was determined to adopt from a shelter; he was equally determined not to adopt a puppy.
”I believe there’s an older population of dogs,” he shares, “and these dogs who are given up deserve a good life too.”
Still, it was important to have a good fit between the family and their new fido. While Mike feels that the chemistry should be mutual, he believes that the dog has the final vote – or veto.
“I’m very big on when you adopt a dog,” Mike explains, “I don’t believe that you should choose a dog, that you should let the dog choose you.”
After months of visiting shelters Mike finally crossed paths with a dog named Cooper through On Angels’ Wings Pet Rescue in September 2022.
The rescue saves dogs on the brink of death from shelters that are at capacity and have no choice but to make life-and-death decisions. On Angels’ Wings Pet Rescue pulled Cooper just one day before he was scheduled to be euthanized.
Mike took a lone trip to meet Cooper, who at the time was thought to be about two years old. The big dog showed signs of having been trained – perhaps by his previous family – before they seemingly abandoned him.
However, Mike concedes that the big dog’s prior life is anyone’s guess.
“Cooper,” Mike shares, “we don’t know too much of his story.”
The Iraq war veteran felt ready to rescue this dog who had literally been saved from the brink of death. But it was Cooper’s meeting with Mike’s family that ultimately sealed his new fate.
“I’ll never forget when we went to pick up Cooper. My daughter went in to go pet and hug Cooper, and he tackled her and went to start licking her,” he recalls, “and my wife said, ‘He’s coming home with us.’”
“…a wonderful, wonderful dog”
Cooper has settled in well with his new family. He adores people and other dogs, and he still remembers a few tricks from his previous life.
“He’s well behaved, he’s obedient, and he’s just a wonderful, wonderful dog,” Mike says adoringly. “It’s been a pleasure, an honor, to be able to bring him home. He’s been with us for over a year now and is an essential member of the family.”
Cooper’s life has taken a turn for the better with Mike and his family, too. Still, although he shows signs of separation anxiety, he can rest assured that he will never be left behind again.
Mike speculates that Cooper was likely adopted during the pandemic and then abandoned when his previous family returned to their pre-pandemic routines.
“He was a COVID dog for someone, probably someone who never left him, and one day he got dropped off and never saw his family again. And now he has a very permanent family that he’ll be with for the rest of his life,” Mike explains. “I tell him every time, ‘We’ll always come back, Cooper,’ but I don’t think, you know, he doesn’t speak good English.”
Everyone in Mike’s household has been enriched profoundly since Cooper’s adoption. This dog – once beloved, then abandoned, then spared from the brink of death at the eleventh hour – finally has a forever family.
“The kids absolutely love him, he’s wonderful with my kids, he’s wonderful with everybody,” Mike says. “He’s very loving and he brings that love that we lost with Rusty.”
A lifeline for veterans and shelter pets
Mike learned about Pets for Patriots after Rusty’s passing. His grief was unbearable, and he wanted to honor Rusty’s life by saving another four-legged soul.
“I think I found out when Rusty died,” he recalls. “I was really distraught looking for new dogs. I had seen a lot of things about placing military dogs with families, and other service dogs, and I wanted to find out the different ways to rescue.”
While dogs like Rusty and Cooper are not service animals, veterans in our program learn quickly that the right companion pet can make all the difference in their lives.
We serve many veterans living with PTSD, depression, anxiety, and loneliness whose adopted dogs and cats give them a renewed sense of purpose, even a reason to live.
The Iraq war veteran is glad that he discovered our program and received support throughout and beyond his adoption.
“I think it’s a great program,” he says.
“I found the process for gaining approval quite simple, and I liked that all the Pets for Patriots employees that when they reached out to me were eager to make sure I was getting the help I need.”
However, what Mike loves most of all is how Cooper is a big bundle of love. He adores his children even as he saves the pinnacle of his love for Mike.
“Cooper absolutely loves me. I’m the alpha and he recognizes,” he says. “But he mostly loves me.”