Iraq war veteran and senior shelter dog both get second chance through adoption

Iraq war veteran and senior shelter dog both get second chance through adoption

Willow was a senior shelter dog who had been surrendered by her family to a Baltimore animal control. In time, she was adopted by an Army veteran who was looking for a second chance at adoption years after laying to rest her first dog.

Life in wartime

Ginger left her home in Gardnerville, Nevada after graduating high school. She wanted to study biology and considered entering the medical field.

While at university in Spokane, Washington, Ginger entered the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program. It paid for her schooling in exchange for her commitment to serve in the armed forces after graduation.

Upon entering the Army Ginger was stationed at Fort Knox, and in 2003 was deployed to Kuwait out of Fort Hood. She had to adjust very quickly.

“It was a challenge because I was kind of left to myself,” she recalls. “Me and my platoon were far away from the rest of our company. I grew up a lot.” 

Ginger was a Chemical Officer 74 Alpha. These Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Specialists – or CBRN – are trained to handle and decontaminate a wide range of dangerous materiel. In this role she was responsible to create base contamination plans and help coalition soldiers get into Iraq.

It was a tense time; the fate of Ginger’s platoon was always uncertain. 

“There was intel that there were chemical weapons in Iraq,” she recalls, “and there was the idea that the Iraqis would attack Kuwait with chemical weapons.”

In fact, the company often faced alerts for ballistic missiles – known as Scuds – that could be headed their way.

 “There were some scary times when there were Scud alerts,” she shares, “but thankfully most of the Scuds were duds.” 

A dog and a deployment

Ginger returned to Fort Hood following a year-long deployment to Kuwait. In 2005, the young veteran and her roommate decided to adopt a Pit Bull mix named Angel.

Ginger admitted that she was not totally ready for the responsibilities of pet guardianship at that time. Still, she went along with the plan to adopt the dog. 

“I loved her,” she shares, “but it wasn’t really my idea. I knew I couldn’t give her up, but being young I was irresponsible sometimes.”

Although Ginger is critical of her maturity during that time in her life, her accomplishments are impressive. In 2006 earned her Masters degree in environmental management – while she was active duty. 

Just two years later, in 2008, Ginger was once again deployed to the Middle East. So she arranged for Angel to stay with a friend in Texas until her return.

The Army soldier was dispatched to Iraq as  part of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) group out of Fort Gillon, Georgia, and served as the company’s commander.

“Lots of paperwork,” she recalls.

However, being in an EOD brigade is risky; the mission is to find, disarm, and destroy weapons. Many things can go wrong when handling such dangerous and volatile materiel. And brigade members could be targeted themselves.

“I think partly because we were EOD, they tried to take out people who would eliminate those threats,” she shares.

Thankfully Ginger and her company made it home safely.

Bittersweet homecoming

Ginger had a joyful reunion with Angel upon returning home from Iraq. However, the big dog had started to show her age.

In 2016, the Iraq war veteran had to make the difficult decision to lay her to rest. She was heartbroken.

Although Ginger grieved the loss of her first pet, in time she felt ready to adopt another companion animal. She applied to Pets for Patriots and was approved in early 2017, but it was not until September 2018 that Ginger met her match. 

Old dogs rule

Ginger resettled in the Baltimore area where she currently works as a project manager for a small manufacturing company. Her Army career helped her land the job.

“They hired me based on my military leadership experience. It kind of spoke to my ability to get things done.”

Iraq war veteran and senior shelter dog both get second chance through adoption

The Iraq war veteran has a more settled home life, as well. She lives with her boyfriend and his two grown sons. Everyone in the household supported the idea of adopting a dog. But Ginger had one condition.

“No way are we getting a puppy,” she recalls telling her family.

The Army veteran used a day off from work to browse Baltimore County Animal Services for a new friend. Since 2013, the municipal shelter offers veterans in our program 50 percent off adoption fees when they adopt eligible dogs and cats.

A timid-looking, mixed-breed dog caught Ginger’s attention. Named Lil Foxy at the time, the dog was neither small nor particularly fox-like.

The Army veteran and the senior shelter dog

Lil Foxy was no puppy. The shelter estimated her to be 14 years old at the time, although her new veterinarian believes she was closer to 11 or 12. Either way, she was a very senior shelter dog.

Our mission to inspire the adoption of the most overlooked dogs and cats resonated with Ginger. Only those who are adult, special needs, chronically homeless – or large breed dogs – are eligible for our program.

“I liked that motivation to give everybody a chance.”

Still, the Army veteran remembers some friends who questioned her decision to adopt a senior pet.

“People were shocked,” she says, adding that they would ask, “Why would [you] get a dog that’s already 14?”

Many people shy away from older animals because their time together will be more limited than with a younger pet. Some are concerned about the possibility of higher veterinary costs, too. But Ginger was unmoved; her compassion for older animals was almost a moral imperative to save one.

 “Well, why not?” she asks. “I know they’re not going to live forever, but no dog wants to die of old age in a shelter.”

Lil Foxy seemed to know that Ginger was her lifeline. It is almost as though the senior shelter dog was waiting for her all along.

“She walked right into the cinch leash,” Ginger explains. “She was eager to get out of the kennel.”

With Lil Foxy’s new life came a new name: Willow.

Second chances 

Ginger learned that Willow’s previous family surrendered her to the shelter after having adopted her just a year earlier. The big dog was hesitant to approach her for some time and did not like to be pet. Ginger suspected there may have been some prior abuse.

Iraq war veteran and senior shelter dog both get second chance through adoption

But the Army veteran believes that she and Willow are each getting a second chance to make adoption work. Ginger vowed to make the most of this opportunity to make better decisions as a pet guardian. 

“I kind of wanted to have another chance to be a good dog parent, and I love dogs,” she says.

Now that she’s in the Army Reserves, Ginger does not have to worry about leaving Willow for long periods of time. Her schedule is more forgiving and she has more time to care for the senior shelter dog. They walk every day in the morning and evening, as well as when Ginger returns home from work.

“I live with my boyfriend and his two sons, they’re 18 and 21,” she says. “They wanted a fun dog, but she’s all about me.”

While there is no doubt that while Willow loves everyone in her new home, it is Ginger who is her favorite person. Sometimes the Army veteran feels guilty about being so favored by the big dog.

“She’s so attached to me I kind of feel bad,” she says. “But they love her too.”

Yet at times Willow seems to ignore other members of the family. She is hard of hearing, which may explain some of her inattention.

“It’s not really her fault if she doesn’t come,” the veteran says, “because she can’t hear you.”

Quirks and cashews

Willow’s personality has blossomed since her adoption. Ginger learned that Willow is one of the few dogs she has ever met who does not like peanut butter. But she does enjoy whole nuts – and a very pricey type, as well.

“She’s got refined taste,” Ginger says. “She likes cashews.”

While the big dog is relatively low maintenance, she is skittish and startles easily. The younger son plays lacrosse and she is afraid of the sticks. And sometimes she just hides under the kitchen table.

Still, the family is patient and respects the older dog’s boundaries. Ginger has noticed that Willow’s defenses seem to drop when she is near other dogs and she is even friendly with cats. Willow seems to know that the cats are easily startled, too, and approaches them with a mix of timidity and curiosity. 

“She’s so excited about life”

As time goes by, the senior shelter dog is opening up more as she learns to trust her forever family. Ginger loves to see Willow break out of her shell and show off her happy-go-lucky personality.

“She’s easygoing. She’ll trip, she’ll slide on the grass, and she’s not embarrassed. She’s so excited about life. She’s not afraid to show that she’s happy and excited,” Ginger shares. “I think she’s more relaxed and at peace. She doesn’t have to be guarded or afraid.”

The Iraq war veteran accepts her four-legged charge just as is, and does not try to change her. And in that acceptance she learned a lesson for herself, too.

“Don’t worry about what other people think,” she says, “just do you.” 

Iraq war veteran and senior shelter dog both get second chance through adoption

Willow has flourished, thanks to time, patience, and the love of her family. She enjoys cuddles on the couch while Ginger crochets, and belly rubs from the family. She loves car rides, lounging on the deck, and never turns down a treat of Beggin’ Strips.

Still, the senior shelter dog is not the only one who got a do-over. Ginger has made the best of her second chance at pet adoption, too. In return, she enjoys the loving embrace of an older pup who makes her life complete.

Ginger urges other veterans to consider pet adoption if they are looking to transform their lives for the better. For this veteran – and so many others – adopting a companion pet is therapeutic.

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” she advises. “Sometimes when you ask for help the answer is a dog.”

Ginger has no regrets about adopting a senior shelter dog. She is deservedly proud of how much she has grown since she first adopted a dog earlier in life and had felt ill-prepared.

With Willow, Ginger has proven to herself that she is up to the task and the privilege of having a companion pet.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better dog,” she says, “and I wouldn’t change a thing about her.”


  1. Walter Eldredge

    Ginger I really enjoyed reading this. It’s a delightful story, and I am so glad for the opportunity to learn more about someone I have admired ever since you shared with me so much about your first deployment. Hard to believe that was 15 years ago; I’m so glad we are still in touch.

  2. Mikki Johansen

    Having known Ginger literally since before she was born (I gave her mom her baby shower!) I have watched this young woman grow up so much over the years. Though not even on the same side of the country with Ginger any longer I still try to keep in touch with her and know how much love Ginger has to give, first to Angel and now to Willow. I think these two have deserved and accepted their second changes. You never told me the story behind your adoption of Willow but it fits you well. Love a girl and her dog!

  3. Mary Katherine Schmitt

    I also adopt older dogs and cats… We were approved for Pets for Patriots and got a beautiful 11-12 year old Irish Setter/ Golden Retriever mix. Lik Willow we know there was neglect and possible abuse but she is happy with her new family. We also got a 13 year old cat so would not die alone in the shelter. Like you we want to give older dogs a chance at a happy life. Give Willow lots of love she knows her life is better with you.

  4. Alexandra

    I loved reading this story about Ginger, Willow, and family. It is rare that someone would adopt a very senior animal but Ginger’s sense of knowing that Willow deserved love regardless of her age was admirable. And reading how her dog had come to trust her and her family was so heartwarming as it sounds as if she had been abused but has learned to give humans a second chance. Bravo to both Ginger and Willow!

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