Homeless dogs help Navy combat veteran navigate unchartered seas

Homeless dogs help Navy combat veteran navigate unchartered seas

After Kevin retired from the Navy he discovered that it would be not one, but two homeless dogs who would help him chart a course through life’s open waters.

No experience needed

At the urging of a close friend who was planning to enlist in the Navy, Kevin briefly explored the idea of joining the military while still in high school. A recruiter made an earnest pitch, but the teenager had his heart set on becoming an architect. Even an opportunity to become part of the storied Sea, Air, and Land (SEAL) teams could not sway him.

“I was a second degree blackbelt in karate. I could swim. I liked to hunt. They said I would make a good SEAL, but I really didn’t want to join the military,” Kevin explains.

After high school Kevin attended college on a scholarship in his home state of New York. He received his associates degree in architecture and then took a semester off to help his mother move to Georgia.

However, Kevin was unaware that his scholarship did not permit a break in study and was stunned to learn that he had to pay back nearly $15,000. He needed a job right away.

“I was looking for work in an Atlanta newspaper and I saw a posting that said ‘Engineers wanted. No experience needed.’ I called the number and they said, “Join the military,’” he laughs. 

“I like designing pretty things”

Kevin was short on options.

The job advertisement may have been “too good to be true,” but at least it provided a way forward. Kevin met with a recruiter and took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test. He earned the highest score possible and could have chosen almost any military job he wanted.

The recruiter tried to steer Kevin towards SEAL training, or alternately to become a nuclear reactors engineer. In that role Kevin would be responsible for the research and design of reactors and plants that power the Navy’s fleet. Neither career path appealed to him.

“Join special forces and kill people? Nah, that’s not me. Or be a nuke? I’m analytical, but I didn’t want to be an engineer,” he says. “I like designing pretty things.”

In debt and unemployed, Kevin asked about military occupational specialties that would allow him to leave for training as soon as possible. In January 2001 he enlisted as a hospital corpsman to provide medical care to service members and their families.

“The sign-on bonus for that was $30,000, and I had a $15,000 bill I had to pay,” he explains. “I thought to myself, ‘I can pay that off, finish my degree and become an officer, or just get out of dodge and go continue to be an architect.’ That was the plan.”

The United States was not involved in any major conflicts at the time. It was a good plan – until the entire world changed.

The war begins

Kevin completed his schooling and reported for his first sea duty assignment aboard the USS Anzio on September 7, 2001. The guided missile cruiser was in dry dock in Portsmouth, Virginia and sailors were on 10-section duty.

With the ship’s personnel divided into 10 groups, each group only had watch duty once every ten days. The young corpsman almost could not believe the simplicity of his new job.

“Life is comfortable, we’re in dry dock, nothing is going on,” he recalls. “But a few days later the whole world completely changed and we switched to port and starboard duty – half the ship was on watch for 12 hours, and then we switched.”

The events of September 11th marked the beginning of 15 years that Kevin would spend at war.

In addition to his medical expertise the sailor was a skilled swimmer and marksman. He received a sobering assignment shortly after the South Tower of the World Trade Center was hit.

“They handed us shotguns and ordered swimmers into the water. They told us, ‘If you see them, shoot them.’”

The Anzio was out of dry dock and on the open seas less than one month after 9/11. The crew spent three months training, after which they were attached to the 5th fleet and deployed to the Middle East. 

“Before we knew it we were in the Med, off the coast of Turkey, shooting missiles at Iraq. That was my first experience in war.”

Sailing the seven seas

In 2003 Kevin reclassified as an intelligence specialist. These professionals collect data on everything from foreign cultures to enemy movements to weather forecasts. In this new role Kevin worked extensively with SEAL teams.

Over the years Kevin would join special operators on ground missions in multiple countries and survived two helicopter crashes. He has been deployed to every continent except Antarctica, and spent time aboard countless submarines, aircraft carriers, and ships.

The seasoned veteran even participated in Ice Exercise (ICEX), an initiative to test force capability and readiness in the Arctic Circle.

“I’ve sailed more of the seas than Captain Jack Sparrow,” he jokes.

All kidding aside, Kevin spent a considerable amount of time engaged in wartime operations. Ultimately, he was awarded nine Combat Action Ribbons and two Purple Hearts. The latter is awarded to service members wounded or killed in action.

However, beyond the commendations and medals, it is the emotional consequences of war that stick with Kevin to this day.

“During my time in the Navy I saw some of the worst things I’ve ever seen in my life. And I had to do things I wasn’t necessarily proud of having to do.”

Kevin worked hard to make himself a better person and leader. While in the Navy he earned a bachelors, masters, and the first of two doctorate degrees. He read everything he could about leadership and attended every school available to him.

It was unimaginable at the time that this highly decorated warrior would rely on two homeless dogs to help him navigate his future life.

A divine meeting

In 2013, while stationed in Misawa, Japan, Kevin was chosen to attend the highly selective Officer Candidate School (OCS).

One pillar of the competitive leadership development course is intense physical training. An in-depth medical examination was required before Kevin could begin this elite schooling.

“I had just finished my second Ironman race. I was running and swimming all the time. I rode my bike from the east coast to the west across Japan,” he says. “I was in the best shape of my life.”

Another component of the 13-week program is rigorous academic instruction. During this time candidates are permitted only limited contact with family and the outside world until after graduation.

Before buckling down for school Kevin took leave and booked a trip to the United States. He spent time with his son and daughter in Washington D.C. before traveling to Georgia to see his mother.

The second leg of his visit would prove to be life changing.

“I was only stateside because I wanted to see my kids and family before going to training for an extended period of time,” he says, “and I ended up meeting this amazing woman.”

Kevin met Chara through his cousin, a “fellow gym rat,” one day before heading back to Japan. Chara had recently undergone a transformational fitness and weight loss journey. Kevin was intrigued by her story and offered to take her to lunch.

The pair hit it off and decided to stay in touch. Kevin returned to Misawa on a high note. He was in peak physical shape and would soon be taking his military career to the next level. A budding new relationship made life even more exciting.

“Meeting each other was divine,” he says.

But the news that came next was nothing short of devastating.

“My life turned upside down”

In 2006, while working in Bahrain, Kevin had blood work and a biopsy through a civilian medical provider. The results were sent to a folder within his electronic medical record. 

Yet in a grave oversight, no military doctor looked in the folder until Kevin was preparing to go to OCS – seven years later.

“The labs said I had stage three cancer and needed to start chemotherapy as soon as possible,” he shares. “My world went dark. It changed so much. My life turned upside down.”

Kevin had no choice but to abandon his goal of becoming an officer. He packed up his belongings and headed to Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego, California to fight for his life.

The Navy veteran called Chara and explained how his life had completely changed since they met just two weeks earlier. He told her he would understand if she did not want to see him any longer.

“She told me, ‘My mother died of breast cancer when I was 21. You’re the greatest thing in my life right now, and I’m not going anywhere.’”

A new home for Rocky

In time, Kevin learned more about his diagnosis and prognosis.

Myelofibrosis (MF) is a chronic blood cancer associated with the presence of scar tissue in the bone marrow. Some patients will have severe symptoms that progress quickly. Others may live for years without showing any symptoms.

Kevin felt fortunate to have the slower progressing form of the disease.

Chara flew out to San Diego once a month to visit while Kevin underwent treatment. Before long, she was facing a major life change of her own. Her best friend was divorcing and could not take his Rottweiler, Rocky, with him when he moved. He had no choice but to surrender the dog to a shelter.

Chara had been terrified of dogs her entire life, but felt compelled to give Rocky a home. She turned to Kevin for advice. The Navy veteran is a dog lover who grew up with large breed dogs.

“I told her to go ahead and do it. Feeling like you want to help a dog is natural,” he recalls. “Plus, I knew the feeling would be mutual and neither of them would like the other in the beginning anyway.”

Rocky was smart and strong-willed, and got into quite a bit of mischief early on. Kevin and Chara often called him Ragnarok, even though it was not his given name. In Scandinavian mythology the term refers to a series of chaotic events that culminated with the world’s end.

Rocky and Chara’s relationship had a turbulent beginning, as Kevin predicted, but the big Rottie eventually became Chara’s “first baby.” The dog that once terrorized her home eventually ate peanut butter off of her fingers to take his medicine.

Live the life you design

Kevin and Chara’s relationship blossomed. The couple spent as much time together as they could despite living on opposite sides of the country. That distance was about to shrink.

In January 2015, after 14 years of service, Kevin medically retired from the Navy with full benefits. His cancer treatment was complete and he had a positive prognosis.

As a seasoned combat veteran Kevin was in high demand with defense contractors. He had several lucrative offers, but wanted to chart a new path. He talked with Chara at length about the decision he had in front of him.

“I was really good at war, maybe too good, but the life of service I had lived to that point made me think about what it would look like if I could mold my own life.”

Chara had a similar outlook. Her life had been shaped by her mother’s death and a bad first marriage. She decided one day that she wanted to live a life of her own design.

Chara offered Kevin an alternative to the high paying jobs that would drag him back to war-torn corners of the world.

“She told me, ‘I know you’re basically homeless and jobless, but don’t take any of those offers. Come to Atlanta. You can live with me and figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life.’”

It was an opportunity he could not pass up.

Doing work that you love

Kevin moved to Georgia and started to formulate a plan to meld two of his passions: investing and agriculture.

Day trading was one of the veteran’s part-time hobbies while in the Navy. It involves the buying and selling of a stock in the same day with the goal of profiting on short term price movements. 

While undergoing cancer treatment Kevin learned about holistic wellness and organic farming. His curiosity piqued when he was advised to avoid certain alternative medicines.

“I started my agricultural journey because the Navy said I couldn’t use cannabis,” Kevin says. “I did not use it, but I studied the hell out of it.”

A number of studies have shown that medical marijuana may reduce pain in cancer patients and combat the side effects of chemotherapy. Despite the potential benefits, its use is controversial in the United States and remains illegal under federal law.

Several states permit the use of the drug for medical purposes, and California – where Kevin underwent cancer treatment – is one of them. However, he was prohibited from using it and risked losing his federal military benefits if he did.

“I couldn’t sue the Navy for malpractice, but because of them, I learned everything I could about regenerative agriculture, botany, herbology, horticulture, aquaponics, hydroponics,” Kevin explains. “You name it, I studied it. I read everything I could on all of those topics, and more.”

What started as a hobby and natural curiosity is now Kevin’s post-military career. He owns an agricultural cultivation and development investment company. The firm specializes in alternative medicine and holistic treatments for everything from the common cold to high blood pressure.

Moving to the country

Kevin and Chara married in a James Bond-themed wedding that paid homage to his former career in intelligence. In time, they purchased a 20-acre farm outside of Atlanta with plenty of space for dogs to enjoy.

By then Rocky was ten years old and the couple thought he would benefit from a younger canine sibling. They were counting on him to pass along his wisdom to his future four-legged companion.

“Rocky is really smart and knows all of our tendencies, so we thought he could teach the new dog how to be our dog.”

The pair looked for a nonprofit organization that could help with the adoption; Chara tries to save money whenever possible. However, Kevin believes it is important to use veteran benefits so the organizations that provide them continue to operate.

“Too many veterans don’t partake in the benefits organizations offer, and then those organizations fold up shop,” he explains.

Chara’s research led her to Pets for Patriots. Our companion pet adoption program for military veterans seemed like a perfect fit.

A huge homeless puppy

Kevin applied to and was accepted into our program, and started his search immediately. The couple focused on large breeds, specifically Rottweilers, since Rocky helped Chara grow comfortable with them.

Two homeless dogs help Navy combat veteran navigate unchartered seas

In September 2021, Kevin found a dog he wanted to meet at Lifeline at Fulton County Animal Services. The shelter waives adoption fees for veterans in our program, and its Fulton County location is one of three Atlanta-area Lifeline shelters in our network.

By the time Kevin got to the shelter the Rottweiler he wanted to see had been adopted. But another dog named Morty caught the Navy veteran’s eye. At the time, Morty was a five month-old Rottweiler mix.

“He was still a baby, but his paws were already bigger than a full-grown Rottweiler,” Kevin recalls. “He was so quiet in there and I just got this feeling about him.”

Despite being a young dog, Morty qualified for our program because he was already 60 pounds at the time. Large breed dogs are among those hard-to-place pets eligible in our program.

The retired combat veteran adopted Morty on the spot. He showed the shelter staff his Pets for Patriots approval so that he would receive all of the benefits available to him.

The farm watcher

Like his dog brother Rocky, Morty would have a formal name – Moriarty – after the fictional criminal mastermind created by author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Shortly after bringing Morty home the couple learned that he is actually a Hovawart. The breed name is derived from the German words hova, meaning farm or yard, and wart, meaning watchman.

The couple could not have adopted a more appropriate dog to help Rocky stand point over their new farm. Sadly, Rocky and Morty would never really get to know each other.

Morty had neuter surgery before going to his forever home and was prescribed two weeks of crate rest. He could not run or wrestle with Rocky until he healed.

During that time Rocky became sick. He was fatigued and having trouble breathing. Just two days later Rocky passed away. 

The couple knew Rocky had been treated for heartworm disease before Chara adopted him. Though dogs often recover with treatment, the infection can cause lasting damage to the heart, lungs, and arteries long after the parasites are gone.   

To this day, Kevin and Chara are astounded at how similar Morty and Rocky are despite spending little time together.

“It sounds crazy, but Morty has all of the same traits that Rocky had. Some people believe in reincarnation. In a spiritual sense, maybe there is such a thing as preincarnation, too.”

The veteran believes it is possible that Rocky and Morty shared a soul. That theory has helped the couple cope with the devastating loss of their beloved canine companion.

“It’s like we didn’t lose a dog, he just transferred to a different body,” Kevin says. “My wife didn’t lose her baby, her baby just got younger in a metaphysical way.”

When two homeless dogs are better than one

After making the commitment to add a second dog to the family, having only one seemed lonely. Rocky’s empty dog house, food and water bowls only reinforced the feeling of emptiness in the couple’s home.

The pair decided that saving the lives of two homeless dogs was better than one.

In January 2022 Kevin and Chara revisited the website of Lifeline at Fulton County Animal Services, where they saw Cruella, a two year-old Rottweiler. She was being fostered in a private home, so the couple took Morty over for a meet and-greet.

The visit was a success and Kevin finalized his second Pets for Patriots adoption. But upon reviewing the paperwork more carefully at home he discovered that Cruella was heartworm positive.

Kevin and Chara were dejected and decided to return Cruella. They contacted the shelter and were relieved to learn that she was only listed as positive due to a clerical error that had not yet been corrected.

“We were in love with her and didn’t want to return her,” Kevin explains, “but after losing Rocky like that, we couldn’t go through it again. It was too painful. We were so happy to find out she was healthy.”

At first Cruella did not understand the nuances of being a household pet. She lacked self-control and tried to eat Morty’s food before he could.

“She was pretty rough around the edges and I had to break some of her prison habits,” Kevin says.

Despite early challenges, the Navy veteran felt comforted to have saved the lives of two homeless dogs.

Life on the farm

In time, Kevin and Chara believe they will adopt several more dogs – maybe even some small ones.

“I love large breeds. I would love to have a couple of Kangals,” he explains. “But the shelters always have a lot of small breeds so we’ll probably get a small breed at some point, too.”

In the meantime Kevin is focused on a new project at work – doing his part to help alleviate food insecurity around the globe. His company is currently working in seven different countries and manages roughly 55 million acres of land for agricultural production.

Morty and Cruella are doing all they can in the way of agricultural cultivation as well. In their own ways they are an integral part of Kevin’s post-military journey.

“Dogs are able to play, explore, be free, and enjoy their lives,” Kevin says, noting that five of the couple’s 20 acres is dedicated to their dogs.

“We start with our own house in Atlanta. Our dogs have their own area of the yard where they do their part to keep the earth natural, create dirt, and prevent erosion.”

The duo chooses to patrol the property all night, then they rest all day: Morty on his square of carpet and Cruella on her pillow. And they enjoy special organic treats Kevin makes just for them.

It is a good life for two once homeless dogs. And these dogs are just the kind of natural therapy upon which Kevin has centered his new life.

“Getting a pet can be a great way to help deal with personal stuff,” he says. “If my story can in any way help another veteran, I’m happy to tell it.”


  1. Mary Eaton

    Thank you for your many years of service Kevin. What a variety of “caps” you have worn since leaving high school!
    Morty and Cruella make a good team and with their very own 5 acres to monitor they are living a very good life.
    And Chara, thank you for taking a chance with Rocky to overcome your fear of dogs. I too like the thought of Rocky sharing his soul with Morty.

  2. Panda J.

    Thank you for your service, Kevin. You and Chara are both angels on Earth to become parents to both of your babies. So many people won’t take a chance on large-breed dogs. I wish for many, many happy years together for all of you. I know the pain of losing a pet suddenly, too. God Bless all of your family.

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