A senior dog surrendered by the only owner he had ever known gives a Navy veteran a renewed sense of purpose as she navigates uncharted waters.
A rudderless future
Renee grew up in a dual military family with a long history of service. After her parents’ divorce, she and her sister settled with their mother outside of Rochester in Western New York.
The young teen enrolled in community college after high school, but quickly realized that college was not for her. Attending class and studying for exams took a back seat to partying, drinking, and doing “stupid teenager” things.
Renee was floating aimlessly through the days with no regard for her future. And then her grandfather got sick. It was a life-altering event that forced her to rethink where she was headed.
“I was stuck in a rut, not doing well in college,” Renee admits. “I knew if I stayed where I was I would be on a path going nowhere.”
The teenager contacted a Navy recruiter after talking with one of her friends – a new sailor. In January 1998 Renee enlisted, convinced the service would provide her with a sense of direction. She felt a renewed sense of purpose and hope.
However, none of the jobs that Renee was offered interested her. She chose to go into the Navy undesignated and select a career path later on.
The young enlistee was thankful for the chance to share her plans with her grandfather before he passed away. He was a former merchant marine and sailor, and the look on his face is a memory she carries with her to this day.
“He never looked more proud than he did at that point.”
The fall before the fall
The young sailor reported to Great Lakes, Illinois for boot camp in June and immediately questioned her new path.
It was intense to be yelled at by drill Instructors for not moving quickly enough. And then a tornado barreled through the area hours after Renee arrived, forcing everyone to barricade in a basement.
“It was so awful,” she recalls. “All I kept thinking was, ‘What did I get myself into?’”
Then Renee fell during a training exercise, making matters worse. She injured her knee and spent several weeks on crutches. She lied about the extent of her injury so that she could graduate on time.
In the fall Renee reported to her first command at Mobile Diving Salvage Unit 2 in Little Creek, Virginia. Two months later she had surgery on her knee. Navy officials encouraged her to accept a medical discharge, but Renee’s commitment to service was unwavering.
“That’s not what I wanted, so I decided I would just get through it and keep going,” she says.
Being immobile after surgery led to a temporary placement in the administrative office. There, Renee performed general clerical duties, assisted with program planning, managed calendars for senior officers, and processed awards. Eventually the time came for her to choose an occupational specialty.
“I figured I should just take the yeoman exam since I was already in the admin office,” she explains. “The job I ended up getting was the same job they offered me at the recruiter’s office – the one I turned down because I didn’t want to be a secretary my whole life.”
As it turns out, Renee’s 22 years in the Navy were far more varied than she ever anticipated. But rough seas at the outset threatened to leave her adrift.
Old habits die hard
Early on in her Navy career Renee married a fellow sailor. The couple welcomed a baby boy in 2000, but a rocky year would follow.
Renee started to drink heavily, a vice that was not new to her.
“I knew from the time I was a teenager that I didn’t drink like the average person. It’s something that does run in my family so it didn’t surprise me,” she admits.
Renee knew she needed help when her drinking led to issues within her marriage. She took the brave step to reach out and ask for help.
“Especially in the military, many patients are forced into the counseling programs when they hit bottom, they don’t usually volunteer to go there.”
Renee secured a spot in the Navy’s 45-day residential treatment program. She started counting down the days until she could begin the process of recovery.
However, Renee’s situation was even more dire than she realized at first. Just thinking about sobriety pushed her overboard.
“I was prepared to take my own life at the thought of never having another drink,” she confides. “I planned my own suicide, and I got caught.”
Renee was committed immediately to the inpatient psychiatric ward at the hospital for three weeks of observation and therapy.
“I don’t want to die anymore…”
It took one memorable group therapy session to change Renee’s entire outlook and give her a renewed sense of purpose.
The sailor learned that one of the other patients had a story almost identical to hers; the only difference was the age of their children. Her son, Anthony, was around one year old. The other patient’s son was closer to ten.
“I justified my plan and condemned his because my son was young and wouldn’t know the difference,” she shares. “His son was older and would definitely feel the effects of the loss of a parent. I thought he was being selfish.”
Renee recalls the moment she finally understood her purpose for living.
“We had this ridiculous argument for 20 to 30 minutes about who had a better reason to take their own life,” she recalls. “I realized how dumb I sounded, and how much Anthony deserved a mother who could overcome this.”
Once again, the Navy veteran pleaded for help.
“I went to my doctors at the end of that group session and said, ‘Okay, what do we have to do? I don’t want to die anymore, but I can’t do this by myself.'”
Doctors were able to accelerate the start date for the residential treatment program where Renee continued her work toward recovery.
Coming full circle
Renee’s first year of sobriety was not without adversity. She and her husband were separated and would eventually divorce. And an ill-timed deployment forced her to dig deep and focus on her renewed sense of purpose.
“It was challenging at times, but I survived it,” she says with pride. “I knew I could survive it because my son deserved a mother who was there for him.”
Renee persevered and successfully navigated the choppy waters of her early Navy career. In time, she became a certified drug and alcohol counselor and discovered her true calling: helping fellow sailors.
“When I became a drug and alcohol counselor it was a full circle thing. I had gone through rehab myself, and then I became a counselor for the same program [in which] I had been a patient of years before.”
The opportunity to pay it forward to sailors in crisis was deeply fulfilling. Renee’s personal life flourished as well. In 2006 she remarried and a short time later gave birth to her second son, Christopher.
Making chief changes everything
Renee eventually left her counseling role and returned to her administrative duties. In 2011 she reached the pinnacle of her career when she achieved the rank of chief petty officer (CPO). The accomplishment was special not just because of the promotion, but for the way it changed the nature of her work.
“You’re not just doing your regular job anymore. Now, your whole job is to take care of other people, and that’s always been what I love to do.”
As CPO, Renee was tasked with “leading bunches of bunches of sailors,” something she feels she was meant to do. Once again, she discovered a renewed sense of purpose in her life.
“I absolutely love taking care of sailors, watching them grow, teaching them how to do their jobs and helping them learn how to survive the difficulties of being gone for the first time.”
Renee served as CPO for nine years before retiring from the military, but not before going underway on multiple sea deployments.
Tedious, but rewarding
Renee served most of her final tour aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman. The ship was part of a strike group that did back-to-back deployments with a full workup cycle in between.
The first deployment was under the Navy’s new dynamic force employment model, which had never been run before. And they were the first active blue nose carrier to cross into the Arctic Circle.
But achieving such historic milestones at work came at a price. Renee was missing out on important events at home.
“My last three years in the Navy were anything but easy. My father passed away unexpectedly and I didn’t get to say goodbye. A month after he passed I missed my older son’s high school graduation.”
Renee had little time to relax after returning home from the first deployment. Her mother had medical issues, and by the time Renee got her stable it was time to deploy again.
“It was all too much,” she says. “I decided that I was done, dropped off my retirement paperwork and started counting down the days.”
Renee had one more deployment to complete, in spite of her exhaustion. She managed it the same way she weathered previous storms in her life – by keeping her sense of purpose front and center.
“I couldn’t lose focus on my job because I had over 40 sailors that I was responsible for,” she says. “We also had a lot of brand new, right out of boot camp sailors who were still learning how to be away from their families for the first time.”
COVID-19 delayed the Truman’s return to port after deployment by several weeks. In June 2020 Renee was finally able to rejoin her family and celebrate the conclusion of her 22-year Navy career.
“He won my heart…”
Renee knew the statistics and stories about veterans who struggle after separating from the military. She thought she would adjust to civilian life without trouble, but she was wrong.
Retiring from a life of military service did not mean that Renee would no longer work. Almost immediately she accepted a position at a local animal shelter where she had volunteered in the past.
“Two days after I walked off the ship for the last time I was working at the Virginia Beach SPCA,” she recalls. “My plan was to go there and just be a worker bee, but within a couple of months I was already in a management position.”
It was through her work at the shelter that Renee met Riddick, a 17 year-old Chihuahua with multiple health conditions. He was surrendered by his owner who could no longer care for him due to medical issues of her own. The pair had been together his entire life.
Renee visited with Riddick one day shortly after he arrived at the shelter. She was horrified to find him vomiting blood.
“I sat with him, and he threw up on me. My heart was breaking for him,” she remembers. “I spent the next 48 hours campaigning with my husband to let me bring him home as a foster.”
Renee was aware that Virginia Beach SPCA partners with Pets for Patriots.
Since 2012 the shelter offers discounted adoption fees to veterans through the program and access to their low-cost veterinary clinic. Renee applied to Pets for Patriots, knowing that both she and Riddick would qualify.
“It was a super quick process,” she recalls. “I put my application in when I took Riddick home on foster, and two days later when I knew was going to adopt him, I had already been approved.”
Separation anxiety is a two-way street
Renee saw firsthand how the stress of shelter life can impact cats and dogs. She had witnessed bright-eyed, happy animals turn sad, anxious, and depressed.
Riddick was one of the lucky ones, having spent only two days at the shelter. But the veteran believes she brought him home just in time.
“I don’t think he would have lasted long in the shelter,” she observes. “He wouldn’t have survived mentally.”
The retired sailor and senior pup formed an instant bond. For a while, Renee even brought Riddick to work with her. He slept in a kennel under her desk while she managed the shelter’s cattery.
However, Riddick’s separation anxiety eventually became too severe. He barked and whined nonstop whenever Renee left the office. The disturbance was problematic for the cats in her care.
“If I was within earshot of him, he needed me near him,” she laments. “I had to make sure I was taking care of the animals I was being paid to take care of, so he stayed with my mom or he stayed home with my husband while I was gone.”
Renee was surprised to realize that Riddick was not the only one suffering from separation anxiety.
“I think he needed me as much as I needed him, I just didn’t know I needed him that much. Riddick became this thing I needed more than I could even fathom.”
A renewed sense of purpose to the rescue
Renee’s hours at work were long, stressful, and unpredictable – much like her time in the Navy. She was separated from Riddick all day and missed the emotional support that he provided.
To compound matters, her younger son, Christopher, was struggling in his freshman year of high school. He is a bright student, but his parents were not home to supervise his virtual learning. With no one to hold him accountable he simply was not doing the required work.
“I was starting to feel very depressed. I never took any downtime after retiring and just went right back to that go, go, go mentality,” she shares. “I hadn’t faced the fact that a big chapter of my life was over, and I didn’t know how to deal with that.”
Renee began seeing a counselor to help her process what she was feeling. And she decided to take a leave of absence after discussions with her husband.
Now the retired sailor enjoys spending time with her son and helping him with his school work. It helps ease the guilt she carries for missing all of his middle school years while stationed on the Truman.
Like many retirees, and particularly veterans, Renee struggled at first with being idle. But the decision was a good one for her family and her own mental health. At the end of 2020 Renee resigned from her position at the shelter. And Riddick gave her the new sense of purpose she needed.
“He gave me something to take care of while I was still figuring out what I needed. When I was struggling with who I was and what my purpose was, I had him to focus on,” she shares. “He comforted me, and I comforted him. We would take care of each other.”
“I miss that gray-faced old man”
Riddick’s physical and mental health began to decline rapidly within a couple of months of his adoption. He was receiving laser treatment and took medications for his joints, liver, anxiety, and pain. Before long he could no longer hold himself up.
Seeing Riddick in constant pain broke Renee’s heart. She had a lengthy conversation with her veterinarian about his quality of life – and had a gut-wrenching decision to make.
“We asked ourselves, ‘Have we tried everything we can? Is it in his best interest to keep trying or do we let him go in peace knowing that his last months were spent thoroughly loved?’ I just couldn’t watch him suffer anymore,” she remembers.
Renee thought back to the passing of her 14 year-old cat, Fatty, years prior. The feline had been diagnosed with cancer, but the family thought they would have more time with her. Instead, she unexpectedly collapsed on the floor one day, unable to breathe because the cancer had spread to her lungs.
“I’ll never forget how awful I felt when I scooped her up and tried to take her to the vet. She died right there in my arms. We were selfish to not give Fatty the grace to pass peacefully, and I just couldn’t do that to Riddick.”
In January 2021, Renee allowed Riddick the humane passing he so deserved. Several months later she still has mixed feelings about letting him go.
“It was awful and it was a relief at the same time,” she shares. “My boy was no longer suffering, but there was such emptiness.”
Renee misses cuddling on the couch with Riddick and dressing him up in bow ties. The sight of his empty bed makes her long to pet his grey-haired face one more time.
Give an older dog a chance
Renee knew her time with the senior pup would be short, but did not expect it to only be three months. Still, she is grateful for what they were able to give each other during their brief time together.
In the meantime Renee hopes her experience with Riddick will help other military veterans see the benefits of pet adoption. She believes companion animals can provide great therapy, especially the ones who often go unnoticed in shelters.
“The animals that Pets for Patriots promotes are often overlooked at shelters because they are older or have medical challenges. Why not give one of those animals a chance?” she asks. “In the military, we’ve all had leaders that have given us a chance, so why not do that for an animal in need?”
Riddick gave Renee a renewed sense of purpose and helped her discover her post-retirement self.
The retired veteran now recognizes that she has “always been a helper,” and plans to return to work in that capacity eventually. In time she would like to work with sailors through the Fleet and Family Service Center to help them prepare for their military lives.
But for now she reflects upon 17 year-old Riddick, who was wise beyond his years. The pint-sized pup gave Renee a newfound perspective on why and how her life matters.
“When you give an older dog a chance, you get so much loyalty and love in return,” she says. “In that short period of time he made such an impact on me. I’m definitely in a better place even after his passing than I was before I knew him.”