Navy veteran and rescue dog overcome life-changing injuries and homelessness

Navy veteran and rescue dog overcome life-changing injuries and homelessness

Mark is a Navy veteran who sustained multiple, life-altering injuries over the course of his nearly 10 years in service. His canine companion, aptly named Shadow, endured her own physical duress before she and Mark were adopted.

These shared experiences of person and pet would cement their bond and, over the years, bring them even closer together. It would even help them endure homelessness.

Pushing through the pain 

One of Mark’s more painful injuries was a ruptured disc in his back. From his discharge in 2007 and for the next six years the Navy veteran suffered excruciating pain, physical and emotional.

Mark was unable to get the Veterans Administration (VA) to recognize his various service-connected injuries. This lack of support only compounded episodes of anxiety and profound depression he has experienced over the years.

Since 2015, however, the Navy veteran has had Shadow by his side. Mark met her at Jacksonville Humane Society, which has partnered with us since 2011. The shelter offers a steeply reduced adoption fee of just $20 to veterans in our program.

Mark’s constant companion seems to know intuitively when he is feeling low.

“She suffers from the same things I suffer from, and when I met her in person she came right to me,” Mark says. “I feel for her because I know the pain she’s going through. I guess that’s why I fell in love with her when I first met her in person.”

Both Shadow and Mark feel the aftermaths of their injuries, particularly during the colder winter months. Prior to her adoption Shadow was found with a partially degloved tail that required amputation and a hind leg broken in two places.

“She moans and groans when she’s in discomfort, Mark says. “She’s kind of just like me. I have a back problem and when the temperature drops, we can both feel it.” 

Because of their intense bond Mark and Shadow were able to rely on each other when life got even tougher. 

Finding hope through homelessness

2016 was a traumatic year for Mark and his family. It was marked by financial strain and homelessness, yet somehow there was always a glimmer of hope as well.

Still, it was a year that put Mark to the ultimate test.

Navy veteran and rescue dog overcome life-changing injuries and homelessness

“Everything hit hard in 2016,” Mark shares. 

The Navy veteran and his family spent most of that year in homelessness. His disability made it hard to find steady work. Benefits were minimal because the VA did not recognize his service-connected, life-altering injuries as eligible for support.

The difficulties mounted. So Mark, his wife, their three sons, and Shadow were forced to stay in a series of temporary places.

For most of 2016 there was no place that the family could call ‘home.’ They spent a few months at a campsite in Georgia. For a time they stayed with friends. And they even went “off the grid,” living in a metal shed until county officials informed them that they were trespassing and had to leave.

“It was a challenging year for everyone.”

Homelessness took its toll on Shadow, too. Before losing the family home, Shadow was close to completing her Canine Good Citizen level three training. She internalized the constant disruption in the family’s circumstances and became too anxious to continue her work.

“With everything we had going on, it stressed her out and it stressed me out,” Mark admits. “We just couldn’t do it. It was too much.”

Despite his circumstances Mark still held hope in his heart. That touch of optimism would serve him and his family well.

Helping hands

During this difficult time Mark and Shadow found solace in each other’s company. Then, as if an answer to prayer, a family friend named Linda opened her home to the entire family.

Mark expressed his gratitude for this friend’s kindness by taking care of odd jobs around the house, fixing things, and doing laundry. 

“I was grateful to have someone like that helping me get back on my feet,” he says.

The time they spent at Linda’s home provided the family with much-needed stability. And it helped Mark regain a sense of purpose as he sought to one day return their friend’s kindness.

And as the year ended, things began to look up. In December 2016 Mark had a nerve conduction test that revealed the extent of his back injury. He was finally awarded both VA and Social Security benefits. 

Eventually Mark and his wife were able to purchase a piece of land in Florida that he likens to a farm. They built a small house and once again have a place to call home.  

Finding purpose 

The Navy veteran is back on his feet and spends his time helping others. Mark volunteers and does administrative work at a local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post.

“It gives me the opportunity to get out of the house when I feel decent, and go do something else,” he shares. “It’s an outlet for me.”

Mark enjoys his work at the VFW and the camaraderie he shares with other veterans. It offers him a sense of community and, in turn, he is able to create that same feeling for other veterans in need.

“I can talk with them and listen to them, and they listen to me,” he says. “We can share the fact that we’ve been there and done it.”

Life on the farm

These days Mark is finally starting to heal – physically, emotionally, and financially. His years-long fight with the VA to recognize and provide benefits for his life-altering injuries is behind him. The family’s bout of homelessness was humbling, but it gave him renewed purpose as well.

Mark and his wife have always loved animals, and prior to being homeless would foster dogs through Jacksonville Humane Society. This is how they met Shadow, who is no longer their only four-legged resident.

The Navy veteran and his family have a mini horse, two pigs, goats, chickens, turkeys – and cats who seem to just show up. 

“Shadow is enjoying being on the farm because she doesn’t have to worry about anything anymore,” Mark says. 

The rescue dog has even made some new friends.

Since moving to the farm Mark has adopted two other dogs: a German Shepherd named Dempsey and a Shepherd mix named Bear. Shadow, however, still finds ways to be the star of the show.

“She sets the example, and the other two follow.”

And with everything Mark learned during Shadow’s Canine Good Citizen training, he is more easily able to train Dempsey and Bear.

Holding on to hope

Mark’s most difficult days are behind him. He reflects on how he adopted Shadow barely a year before the family lost their home. Still, he could not imagine giving her up – or what life would be like without her.

The Navy veteran appreciates the support Pets for Patriots provides and how we helped him keep his aptly-named Shadow.

“We were able to get toys, food, and other things to help acclimate Shadow into our home and make her a family member.”

In addition to our customary post-adoption benefits we helped Mark and Shadow through our hardship program. This support helps veterans care for their pets during periods of temporary financial difficulty so that they are not faced with surrendering them back to the shelter.

And of course Mark is thankful for their friend, Linda, who gave the family the chance they needed by welcoming them into her home.

“We were very grateful to end 2016 on a positive note,” Mark shares.

The Navy veteran believes that hope and gratitude are essential. They are what allowed him to endure years of pain and anguish, and nearly a year of homelessness. At the VFW, Mark shares his positive attitude with other veterans. 

“Fight to the end, and stay as strong as you can even though there may be times you want to throw in the towel,” he says. “Continue. Don’t stop. Look for other resources and allow people to help you.”


  1. Dan Knotts

    God Bless you Mark, family and Shadow. VA also denies any service connected injuries with me also. But we are still blessed and I also adopted a great dog from the shelter via Pets for patriots, great organization!. Thank you for your service. I wish you and family and Shadow the best of life.

  2. John A. Smaldone

    Very sad,

    Very sad to see what so many of our veteran’s go through, no reason for it! The story of Shadow, Mark and the rest of his family is heart breaking, but yet, thank God, it wound up with a happy ending, that is something for all of us to cheer about.

    This was a very touching story in so many ways. Very ironic the many similarities between Shadow and Mark.

    Mark and his family becoming homeless is the part of story that I can never accept, here is a man who put his life on the line for our country for 10 years, endured injury after injury, only to leave the service so honorably, but forced to live a life of pain and shame!

    What is wrong with us here in this country, how can we allow this to happen? I just can’t understand it and never will!!

    However, this is such a happy ending and Beth Zimmerman had such a great part in making it a happy ending. Hat’s off to Linda, you are a hero and need to be praised with honor for your generosity to Mark, his family and Shadow!

    God be with you Mark, your entire family and Shadow!

    John A. Smaldone
    US Air Force Veteran

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