Three years after he separated from service for health reasons Joel decided that a four-legged companion was just what the doctor ordered. At the time he could not know that a mischievous little shelter dog would provide a love stronger than any medicine.
Like father, like son
Joel – whom everyone calls Jae – was born in Portland, Maine. When he was just six or seven years old his family moved to Georgia, where he would eventually graduate high school and put down roots.
In 2006 at the age of 17 Jae enlisted in the Army National Guard. A flyer advertising free t-shirts at the recruitment office caught his eye.
“I enlisted, not really as a joke,” he recalls. “But you know those flyers that recruiters send out? ‘Come talk to me, and I’ll give you a t-shirt?’ My dad was in the National Guard and deployed in Iraq, and I got one of those flyers. I said, ‘I’ll go talk to them,’ and I went to see them. From there, the process happened really quick.”
Jae completed his basic combat training at Fort Jackson in February 2006 and went on to serve as an MOS 92A, or automated logistical specialist. His main role was as a warehouse clerk, ordering essential supplies on a massive scale, rationing MREs and food, working with the oil program, and more.
Coincidentally, Jae served in the same unit simultaneously with his father. During that time their unit was activated and sent to Afghanistan, but Jae was not deployed.
“[My father] didn’t want both of us to go because then he would have to look after me as well as himself,” Jae explains.
The elder veteran recently retired after more than 20 years in the National Guard.
Career-ending health concerns
Although he was not deployed overseas Jae did have the chance to travel during his service. In 2007 he worked alongside U.S. Border Patrol agents at the Mexican border, one of many unforgettable experiences in his military career.
“My military service in general was eye opening and memorable,” he shares, “because I learned so much.”
At the time that Jae enlisted in the Guard he was a full-time student studying criminal justice, but he did not graduate. In 2012 he became a commercial truck driver. The work was demanding physically and health issues ultimately forced a career change.
These same health issues prompted the young veteran to make the difficult decision not to re-enlist in 2015 after nearly a decade of service in the National Guard.
The lure of the North
Since separating from service Jae lives with his sister, niece, and nephew in Georgia. He works for the state at a juvenile correctional facility north of Atlanta.
Although the Army veteran has lived in Georgia since he was a small child he has been unable to escape the call of his birthplace. Jae is especially fond of the cold winters and hopes to return someday to live back north.
“I tell people I grew up down south, but I’m always going to have what I call the ‘Northern want,’” he says. “I want to go back home.”
Jae’s “little girl”
Jae had grown up with pets and his decision to adopt a companion dog was one that came naturally to him. After getting to know a friend’s Chihuahua mix he thought he would search for a smaller pup, despite having grown up with larger dogs.
The Army veteran began his search at DeKalb County Animal Services, one of three Atlanta-area shelters operated by the LifeLine Animal Project.
The nonprofit animal welfare organization is dedicated to ending the euthanasia of healthy and treatable dogs and cats in metro Atlanta shelters. All three of its shelters waive adoption fees for veterans in our program who adopt eligible dogs and cats.
Jae was looking for a Chihuahua or a Chihuahua mix – until he met Lil’ Girl. She was the only small dog at the shelter on that particular day and Jae knew that she was “the one.” And although the little shelter dog with the very fitting name was not a Chihuahua, the pair played together for an hour. They just clicked.
While the young veteran does not know Lil’ Girl’s exact breed mix, he jokes that she is part reindeer owing to her very large ears.
The little shelter dog with the big mystery
Lil’ Girl – since renamed Bella – had been brought to the shelter as a stray. Jae had to wait several days to adopt her in case her previous family came forward, but none did. One the waiting period was over Jae rushed back to adopt the little shelter dog, confident that she was meant for him.
The veteran’s joy quickly dimmed when he realized that Bella might not have been sure that he was the one for her.
“When I went to pick her up, the lady brought her up from the back,” Jae remembers. “She was holding her, and I reached out to Bella and she snapped at me.”
Jae gave Bella some space to walk around and get used to him, and her fear vanished quickly. Once he brought the little shelter dog home it was clear that they both had made the right choice.
“When we got home my nephew was there and she went right to him,” Jae says. “He’s an animal magnet.”
Bella rules the roost
Since her adoption Bella has become an integral part of Jae’s family – and his 18 year-old nephew’s constant shadow.
“He’s a dog whisperer,” Jae says. “We all joke that Bella is his dog, not mine. I just buy the food.”
The little shelter dog has had plenty of time to decompress and come out of her shell, and her personality has started to shine. She loves to snuggle and be close to her humans at all times.
Bella has even become best friends with a family kitten, despite an initial rough start to that relationship. Most of all, she brings a joyful energy to Jae’s household.
“She’s an active little thing,” he says. “She loves to run in the yard. She jumps at the door when she wants to go out and knocks when she’s ready to come back in. She is mischievous, but she’s very smart and that’s what I like about her.”
Despite Bella’s occasional transgressions – like raiding the kitchen trash – she is a good dog and just what Jae needed. He does not seem to mind that his little shelter dog is the boss.
“She’s running things,” he says. “We’re the players, she’s the master.”
Like most dogs, Bella is very intuitive. Jae credits her with keeping his spirits up during even his lowest moments.
“She’s really changed my life,” Jae says. “At one point I was just going through the motions, and now I have something to look forward to when I come home. She knows when you’re having a bad day or don’t want to be bothered. She can sense that. It helps to have a pet, especially when you’re going through down or dark times.”