Adopting a cat helps a retired Army veteran overcome loneliness and isolation after his transition to civilian life.
James grew up hunting, fishing, and doing anything outdoorsy in the Virginia backcountry. In high school he joined the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or ROTC, to prepare him for a future in the military.
Still, James credits his childhood Boy Scout training with preparing him for his eventual career in the Army.
“They teach you organizational skills in civilization, and they teach you survival skills when you’re in an outdoor environment,” he says.
While others struggled during ROTC field exercises, James’ scout training kicked in.
“I felt at home.”
“…stuck behind a microscope”
From an early age, James had an interest in the medical sciences and knew that it would be his life’s work. He was inspired by his mother – a nurse – and has fond memories of his medical training as a Boy Scout.
“One of the top things they teach you is first aid,” he recalls.
So it was no surprise that when James enlisted in the Army he trained as a medical laboratory specialist. These professionals are typically assigned to Army clinics or hospital laboratories worldwide.
The young soldier’s fellow recruits were impressed by his skills. One particular Army buddy was puzzled that James already knew how to do so many things.
“He’s sitting there looking at me like, ‘how do you know all this stuff?'”
During what would ultimately be a 20-year military career, James worked in Army hospitals and field units – anywhere the Army needed him. He served a tour in Iraq in 2005, which he describes in the most casual way.
“While I was there,” he says, “I did the usual lab techie things.”
Regardless of where the young soldier was stationed his job was consistent.
“I was basically stuck behind a microscope my entire career,” he says.
Back from Iraq
In 2006 upon his return stateside from Iraq, James injured his back. The prospect of medical retirement loomed.
However, the career soldier was less than three years away from his 20-year service mark. The medical evaluation board decided that James would be allowed to continue his service til he reached that milestone.
“The Army wants you to be physically capable of doing all of your duties,” he explains.
After back surgery and a short recovery period James was assigned to a new duty station in South Korea. From there he fulfilled his retirement obligations and returned to Fort Bliss in Texas prior to separation.
James would separate from the Army after 20 years of service. It was time to start a new life as a civilian, one that would in time be marked with long periods of loneliness and isolation.
Par for the course
James left Fort Bliss and moved to Maryland, where he immersed himself in a new hobby.
“I discovered the joys of golfing,” he shares. “It was a good exercise for my back.”
The Army veteran enrolled in a professional golf management course, but problems arose during his second year of college.
James’ back did not heal properly before he was sent on his final deployment to Korea, and the injury began to flare up again.
The Army veteran decided to give up golf and change course. He bought a house in North Carolina on a scenic piece of land with river access.
At first James appreciated the quiet life; after all he was a solitary soul. But he started to feel the stings of loneliness and isolation – feelings that were especially acute after being immersed in Army life for so long.
“I was always used to being with people at work,” he explains, “but then I stopped working.”
It was around this time that James first started to consider adopting a companion pet. He last had a pet when he was 13 years old, and preferred an animal who was somewhat independent.
Naturally, James began his search for the perfect cat.
“…the pet is choosing me”
It was not long til James believed that his search was over almost before it started. He discovered a friendly tabby living in the crawlspace underneath his home.
However, the retired veteran would learn that the cat belonged to a neighbor and had been missing for three months. This inspired James to start his nascent search anew by looking at local animal shelters.
James undertook his search with all of the focus and determination of an Army mission. He visited SPCA of Northeastern North Carolina eight or nine times.
The career soldier was committed to finding a four-legged antidote to his loneliness and isolation.
“Not only am I choosing the pet,” he reasons, “the pet is choosing me.”
James would learn that SPCA of Northeastern North Carolina partners with us to help qualified veterans adopt companion pets. The shelter extends a 50 percent adoption fee discount to veterans in our program who save eligible dogs and cats.
In March 2022 James applied to our program and was quickly approved. Still, it would be a couple of weeks more til he met his perfect match.
Cat TV and company
At the time, Nezzie was a two year-old torbie cat – her fur a mix of tortoise shell and tabby. James was smitten by her unusual looks and undeterred by her timid nature.
Within a week Nezzie grew more comfortable in her environment, which James describes as any cat’s paradise.
“I have a cat TV,” he jokes, referring to his home’s big windows for watching the surrounding wildlife.
Although Nezzie is content birdwatching all day, her mere presence offers a welcome relief to the loneliness and isolation that James has felt since separating from the military. He considers their relationship a very fair trade.
“She’s pretty awesome. She gives me something to do every day,” he says. “In return she will keep me company, and she doesn’t cause me troubles whatsoever. She is really a sweetheart.”
However, no relationship is without occasional conflict.
“Our only arguments are on nail-trimming day,” James explains.
Fortunately Nezzie is more cooperative with other aspects of her grooming. James de-sheds her at least three times a week, all the while admiring her exceptionally soft, almost chinchilla-type fur.
The frequent grooming is a necessity for Nezzie.
“I feel like each time I de-shed a whole cat from this thing,” he jokes.
A kindred cat
All of James’ many visits to the shelter paid off. If turns out that he and Nezzie get along so well because they are kindred spirits, of sorts.
“A personality like mine likes to be solitary and likes to be with people on my own terms,” says James.
Nezzie is seemingly similar. James brought her to the shelter to assess her compatibility with other cats after friends suggested that she needed a feline friend. But she hissed and fussed – even at kittens.
The Army veteran shared the encounter with his mother, who quipped, “‘That reminds me of someone. You can’t make an antisocial creature a social one.'”
It turns out that both James and Nezzie both have limited appetites for many friends. However, when it comes to other lifestyle choices – like mealtime – their tastes diverge.
“She’s more of a ‘chicken’ cat than a ‘fish’ cat,” he explains. “I’m fine with it. That means I don’t have to share my seafood with her.”
Living less alone
James appreciates that Pets for Patriots helped him through his adoption journey and beyond.
“In the Army, we are really good at taking care of other people, and we are not very good at taking care of ourselves,” he says. “Pets for Patriots was perfect for what I wanted to do.”
The career soldier – now less lonely and isolated – admits that it is nice to have people who reach out to him from time to time.
“The fact that people checked up to see how we were doing periodically,” he says, ”that’s a big thing.”
Even people like James who prefer a certain amount of solitude are prone to bouts of loneliness and isolation. He admits that something was missing in his life after all.
“My network of friends and family are very close knit and selective,” he shares. “You don’t realize you still need those interactions with something that’s alive.”
In addition, Nezzie satisfies James’ need for a certain amount of routine. Many veterans we serve tell us that the sense of purpose they felt during their military service is difficult to replicate when they re-enter civilian life.
Nezzie gives the career soldier just the right mix of rigor and freedom.
“She doesn’t make me feel guilty when I go somewhere,” he shares, adding, “as long as you keep to her feeding schedule.”
There is no shame in experiencing times of loneliness and isolation; it is part of the human condition. But James realized that it was becoming a way of life rather than a fleeting experience that sometimes gets in the way of life.
In choosing to adopt a companion pet, James made a life affirming decision and saved a four-legged soul as well.
As we all do in life, James may suffer from loneliness on occasion. But he is no longer alone. Nezzie has become his battle buddy and a part of his family, as well.
“She keeps me company,” he says. “She’s like my little kid.”