A Marine Corps veteran adjusting to civilian life discovered that healing happens at both ends of the leash when he adopted a dog with anxieties of his own.
The few and the proud
Andrew spent the first 19 years of his life in Omaha, Nebraska. He loved playing soldier and WWII was his favorite subject in school.
As he matured Andrew became more involved in working out and playing football, but always imagined that his future would include serving his country.
“I had wanted to join the military for a long time,” he says. “Especially growing up and playing soldier.”
The Marine Corps were particularly alluring to Andrew. He wanted to be among the few and the proud, and set his sights on becoming an officer.
“The Marines are the toughest branch,” he remembers thinking. “It’s Marines or bust.”
A few of Andrew’s childhood friends enlisted in the Marines right after high school. He took a different path and started college on an ROTC scholarship. But after one semester he was aching for more action.
“Especially when I saw my friends doing Marine stuff and I felt like I was missing out.”
So Andrew left college and enlisted in the Marines, fulfilling a lifelong dream to serve in the military like his two grandfathers before him.
In boot camp Andrew performed in the top ten percent of his class. Due to his status as a top recruit he was offered the military occupational specialty of High Mobility Artillery Rocket System Operator.
While the young Marine preferred to work on tanks, he accepted the offer – in part because there was a good chance he would be sent to Camp Pendleton in Southern California, where he hoped to be stationed.
Moving to the West coast and enlisting in the military were life-changing experiences for the young veteran.
“Well, being a Marine, that kind of made me grow into a man.”
Yet during his time in service Andrew realized that his expectations of military life were much different than the reality he was experiencing. He had a hard time accepting that his long held vision might not come to pass.
“It was kind of a dream that I had so much hope for,” he says.
During his service Andrew felt that he could not be his true self. In the end he concluded that his free-spirited nature did not marry well well with rule-bound military culture.
“I’d have to keep my opinions to myself,” he says, adding, “there was a lot of abuse I had to deal with.”
“It made me feel worthless,” the young veteran confides. “Honestly I felt like I was wasting my life.”
Andrew needed a change and a chance at recovery. So he made the difficult, yet necessary, decision to separate from service in 2019. He is now able to accept his past and appreciates the experiences he had as a Marine.
“I don’t regret joining,” he says. “At least I know I did it, and I did it well.”
The missing piece
Several months before separating from service Andrew began attending college in San Diego to prepare for his transition to civilian life. It started to dawn upon him that he would need help of a different kind as well if he was to have a more robust recovery.
“I was sort of dealing with all of the mental issues out of the Marine Corps,” he shares.
So Andrew grounded himself by attending college and participating in therapy. These decisions marked a turning point for him.
“I really felt like going to school and having a therapist changed my life.”
As the young veteran worked to reclaim a sense of purpose he imagined that a dog would be a great companion – and a complement to his efforts. With a renewed spirit, Andrew felt confident that it was the right time to adopt a pet. Little did he know that he was about to experience healing at both ends of the leash.
“Pretty much my entire life I wanted a dog,” he says, “but I never had a dog growing up because my mom wasn’t a fan.”
Early in 2020 the young veteran began researching companion pet adoption. He came across Pets for Patriots and believed our program would help him get started on the right path.
Andrew was serious about committing to a pet and discussed it with his therapist. Both believed that it was a responsible decision, for himself and his future dog. In early April the young veteran was approved into our program.
All that was left to do was find the right dog – a feat that is sometimes challenging on its own, but even more so during a pandemic.
Nothing like the real thing
It would be more than a month later that the young Marine Corps veteran met his four-legged match.
Andrew was directed to one of our local shelter partners, the San Diego Humane Society and SPCA. Since 2014 the shelter has offered fee-waived adoptions to veterans in our program through their three locations across San Diego county.
Adoptions were by appointment only due to COVID-19. Many animal welfare organizations across the country no longer allow walk-ins and have new protocols to keep staff, volunteers, pets, and guests safe.
Andrew relied on the shelter website to look at adoptable dogs.
“[The pandemic] definitely made things a little harder,” he says. “Even when I adopted my dog, all I had to base off of were the pictures on the website.”
In May 2020 the photo of a large, wolf-like German Shepherd-mix named Zeeli caught the young veteran’s attention. But the photos did not do the shelter dog justice.
It was not until Andrew booked his appointment to see Zeeli in person that the dog’s magnificent presence struck him.
“I was like, wow – this dog is huge!”
Andrew remembers asking the shelter staff how soon he could adopt the then four year-old dog. He always wanted a Shepherd and Zeeli was – and is – simply breathtaking.
“…life has been better ever since”
Within a few days Andrew adopted the massive dog and renamed him Fenrir. The moniker comes from Norse mythology and means giant wolf. But despite Fenrir’s stately presence, Andrew noticed that he was shy and frightened.
It seems that the big dog needed a recovery from his own anxieties as well.
So the Marine Corps veteran decided to take the scenic route home from the shelter and took Fenrir for a long drive. It was their first real opportunity to bond, since extended introductions were not available at the shelter due to the virus.
“I played some country music and started singing along,” he shares, which prompted Fenrir to sniff his shirt.
Andrew was elated; the interaction was “the cutest part of the day.” But the best was yet to come.
“Then I brought him home and life has been better ever since.”
Big dog, big adventures
Now that the veteran and pet have been together for some time, Andrew has grown accustomed to Fenrir’s size. He no longer perceives him as huge, but rather just right.
“I don’t really see him as that big,” he laughs.
Still, that does not stop Fenrir from making an impression upon everyone else he meets. When the duo are out in public together, the gasps and “wow’s!” are aplenty.
Andrew and Fenrir spend a lot of time outdoors, which is good for their physical health and for Andrew’s emotional well-being.
The pair took advantage of the many hiking trails and dog-friendly parks in the region. It was a great way to stay safe and healthy during the pandemic. Andrew and Fenrir literally enjoy healing at both ends of the leash.
“There were quite a few trails near Escondido, Lake Hodges, Cowels Mountain was another good one,” he says, adding, “Discovery Lake in San Marcos.”
These have not been the pair’s only outdoor adventures. They went hiking at the Grand Canyon on the way to Nebraska to visit family. Once introduced, Fenrir was well-behaved with Andrew’s younger siblings and won over the rest of the clan.
“My mom liked him and my sister, Erin, she’s very much a dog person,” Andrew explains, “and loved him a lot, too.”
It was clear that Fenrir is equally smitten with Andrew.
“Everyone who’s met him has seen how attached he is to me.”
Healing at both ends of the leash
Despite his size Fenrir is a gentle giant and Andrew feels lucky to have such a docile dog. The big pup brings a welcome calm to the young veteran’s life, even as he works through recovery from his own emotional challenges.
One such challenge is Fenrir’s discomfort around other dogs.
“He gets very excited and kind of agitated, so I kind of avoid interactions with other dogs,” Andrew says. “I think he missed that part of his puppy training.”
During a recent stay at a friend’s house, however, Fenrir had the chance to mingle with other dogs. It was the first time Andrew had seen Fenrir play with other pups and seem relaxed. And it was comforting to see the big dog’s recovery happening right before his eyes.
“He’s definitely getting better by leaps and bounds.”
It seems the same could be said for Andrew and his depression. Many studies have shown that dogs have a unique capacity to make us happy.
At the end of the summer the pair moved to Kyle, Texas, where Andrew is studying psychology at a nearby university. The veteran is working on creating a life more suited to his free-spirited nature, with Fenrir at his side.
The pair seem to have developed a mutual, unspoken understanding that defines their relationship.
“At least for me and the way that I treat him, I just use the golden rule,” Andrew shares. “Through genuine care they notice that and they reciprocate those feelings.”
The golden rule teaches to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Although the move has been an adjustment for Fenrir, the giant pup seems to understand that he will be cared for no matter where he and Andrew live.
“…a place to be loved”
Moving to a new city while facing the many challenges of COVID-19 can be unsettling.
Fortunately, Fenrir eases Andrew’s concerns about the uncertainties of his new situation.
“He does give me comfort, and times have been stressful,” he says. “It’s been really good having him around. It would be harder if I was by myself and didn’t have someone to be there for me.”
In the end, the Marine Corps veteran realizes that pet adoption is all above love and healing at both ends of the leash. And Andrew is certain that Fenrir understands that he is truly home with him, where ever the two may call home.
“If anything, I’ve given a him a place to be safe and a place to be loved,” he shares. “I like to think he can tell he knows that he’s loved.”