Love of Bronze Star veteran helps twice surrendered dog outlive cancer prognosis

Love of Bronze Star veteran helps twice surrendered dog outlive cancer prognosis

A Bronze Star veteran with dozens of military medals summons all his grit and love to help his adopted dog battle aggressive cancer.

A distinguished Army career

Craig’s long Army career started when he was just a teenager.

“I enlisted in the service at 17 years old then went to college on ROTC and GI bill funding, and became an officer,” he recalls.

During his more than 20 years of service Craig served in some of the most brutal battle fields in our nation’s history. He earned more than two dozen medals and citations for service, including the Bronze Star Medal, which is awarded for meritorious service in a combat zone.

“I’m a veteran of foreign war four times over,” he says. “The most recent combat deployment I had was Iraq, Mosul, and Baghdad in 2005 and 2006, and was awarded for that service a Bronze Star. I have over 25 medals and Citations for Service and achievements. I was a qualified Airborne Ranger and pathfinder with [a] Combat Infantryman Badge.”

In September 2009, Craig retired from the Army as a Lieutenant Colonel with more than 20 years of service.

Craig acquired many memories during his long military career. But among his most rewarding were those that gave him a sense of belonging and purpose.

“My most happy memorable experiences was commanding our absolutely fantastic troops,” he says. “I commanded four different units. I loved to see a unit grow and achieve their full potential. Being part of a team was probably the most important part of that service.”

The Bronze Star veteran with a heart of gold

Although Craig retired from the military, he did not retire. He moved his family to rural Indiana – where they live “in the corn fields” – and started three businesses which, at their peak, employed more than 30 people.

The veteran officer admits that he enjoys the “quiet life” outside of Indianapolis. It is one he shares with his wife, Barbara, and their daughters Anna, Lia, and Lily.

But the Bronze Star veteran missed helping others. Specifically, he missed the camaraderie and sense of purpose he treasured during his long military career.

So Craig sold two of his businesses and now dedicates himself to assisting fellow veterans.

“Currently, I consult for the Veteran Affairs administration helping vets get the treatment they deserve and are owed.”

For the unconditional love of dogs

Dogs have always played an important role in Craig’s life.

“I always loved dogs. When I looked at a dog’s eyes I always saw a soul,” he says. “That soul seemed so innocent.”

In many ways dogs remind the Bronze Star veteran of what he loved most about the military.

“They wanted to have purpose and that purpose was to be a part of their team,” Craig says. “They had a sense of unconditional love without any judgement and [in] return you just had to offer the same to them. They truly are man’s best friends.”

In 2014, the Army veteran and his family decided it was time to adopt a companion dog. They visited their local animal shelter, Humane Society of Indianapolis.

The shelter has been one of our longest term adoption partners. Since 2010, Humane Society of Indianapolis offers veterans in our program 35 percent off adoption fees for eligible dogs and cats.

“When we went to the animal shelter they recommended we look into Pets for Patriots, whose mission it was to help vets through the love of an animal,” Craig says. “With that mission we looked it up and decided the values of Pets for Patriots had where the same as our values. The rest is history.”

Because a shelter is not a home

At the time, Opel was a large, black-and-white Labrador mix and just over one year old. Yet in the course of her still young life she experienced terrible hardship.

Love of Bronze Star veteran helps twice surrendered dog outlive cancer prognosis

“The story of Opel was that when she was a pup she was chained to the shelter’s fence and was just abandoned. She was then adopted by a couple for about 30 days and then was returned to the shelter,” Craig recalls. “Most of her life up to that point was in the shelter.”

Long-term sheltering – even just for a few weeks – can have negative impacts on dogs’ physical and emotional health. And each time an animal is surrendered she deteriorates, decreasing her adoption potential.

Opel had been abandoned twice already and was back at the shelter for more than two months when she met Craig. The Bronze Star veteran hoped that her third chance at a better life would be the charm.

“When we met Opel the only thing I saw in her eyes was unconditional love.”

Opel the enforcer

Once home with Craig and his family, Opel showed typical signs of a dog with separation anxiety. It can take months, even years, for animals who are repeatedly abandoned to have confidence in their new homes.

“When we brought her home she never wanted to be left alone. She was always near us or the kids,” Craig remembers.

And in spite of – or maybe due to – her own anxieties, Opel brought a welcome sense of calm to the household.

“She also never liked the family to raise their voice, she was always between the two that had arguments,” Craig observes. “She was the enforcer of staying relaxed.”

The Army veteran notes how Opel puts herself in the way of vocal family members so that they would pet her. The shelter dog’s interventions have had a calming effect on the entire family.

“…if she could talk I would think she would be saying, ‘take a breath and relax,'” Craig says. “As a result we have a much more relaxed and patient family household.”

A dreaded diagnosis

In April 2018 Craig and his family received devastating news.

“Opel was diagnosed with melanoma cancer – very aggressive cancer. The vets gave her six months to live.”

Love of Bronze Star veteran helps twice surrendered dog outlive cancer prognosis

Just like in humans, melanoma in dogs is a cancer of the skin. It can be benign or malignant; in Opel’s case it was the latter. Her prognosis was grim.

Craig was and remains determined to give Opel as much love and life as possible. But the diagnostic tests, tumor removals, medications, and frequent visits to the veterinarian were taking a tremendous financial toll.

Pets for Patriots offered to help through our hero fund. It gives veterans in our program financial support for life extending, lifesaving, or palliative care for adopted pets. This assistance is a vital alternative to animals being surrendered or losing their lives prematurely.

“Pets for Patriots has been true to their mission and has helped our family with medication and treating Opel,” says Craig.

Opel’s bucket list

As of this writing Opel has outlived her prognosis by six months and she is still going strong. Craig knows that every day with his twice-abandoned dog is a blessing.

The family has vowed to make every day for Opel an extraordinary one.

Love of Bronze Star veteran helps twice surrendered dog outlive cancer prognosis

“Since the diagnosis the family decided to create a bucket list for Opel so she would have a relaxed and happy life. We wanted to give back to her what she has given our family.”

Opel has been making her way through her bucket list with zeal.

“Since her diagnosis Opel has checked off a dozen-plus bucket list events,” Craig says.

Some of Opel’s bucket list memories are food-related, such as picking her own bones from the local butcher shop.

“She loved the shoulders and pig ears.”

Other experiences fall into the category of letting dogs be dogs.

“Opel had a destuffing party of stuffed animals, she ran after rabbits in the back yard, she went to the Atlantic ocean and ran on the beaches and barked at the waves as they came in and out,” Craig recounts. “She ate stake on a plate and had it delivered to her in bed, she ate with the family at an outside dinner, she went on multiple rides, and we allowed her to stick her head out the window and smell the world.”

And the list goes on.

“She chased balloons, and slept on our bed, she ate all kinds of food – too long to list – and gained 10 pounds doing it.”

For the love of Opel

Opel and her Bronze Star veteran embrace every day as a gift. It was a particularly joyous time during the 2018 holidays because no one expected Opel to be part of the festivities.

“We are in another year and Opel made it to another Christmas,” Craig says. “She was diagnosed in April with cancer and was given six months to live, but she was always a fighter going on her ninth month and still going strong.”

Love of Bronze Star veteran helps twice surrendered dog outlive cancer prognosis

We continue to supply Opel with her lifesaving medication through our hero fund and help with other medical needs as she battles cancer.

Craig is grateful that we have his six. And if Opel could speak we know that she would say how much she loves every moment with her family.

“Pets for Patriots are true to their mission. I can not think of a pet nonprofit that has had a huge impact on veterans and their pets lives together,” he says. “It truly is a partnership, one I hope lasts for years to come.”

But nothing compares to the pure, innocent devotion of a dog to her people. It is this that the Bronze Star veteran cherishes most, and will miss when his sweet dog’s battle is done.

“I love Opel’s unconditional love.”

Make a gift to Opel or any pets receiving support through our hero fund.


  1. Alyson

    Thank you for your service. I’m so touched by the story of Opel’s bucket list. Praying that you have many more months together.

  2. Panda J.

    Thank you for your service, Craig. Opel is truly blessed to have such a loving, supportive family around her in her life, however much longer it may be. The joy and love she feels for you is evident in these pictures. God Bless you and your family for loving her enough to make her last months so special. I will keep all of you in my prayers.

  3. Craig Kleber

    Humbling and Beautiful

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