A Navy veteran struggling with insomnia and loneliness finds peace with a senior special needs Pit Bull who needed a home.
Out to sea
Monika’s early years were hectic and demanding. Born in Chicago to Polish immigrant parents, the responsibility to support her family fell on her shoulders since her mother was unable to work due to being a serious mental illness.
Monika shouldered the challenge of caring for her mother and sister. At the same time she needed to manage her own life and felt a particular urgency to finish college.
“I was worried that if I postponed college, I would not finish,” she shares.
So Monika explored her options and discovered the Nuclear Propulsion Officer Candidate program (NUPOC). It allowed her to finish her education at a prestigious Illinois university and enter the Navy as an officer, where she was subsequently trained in surface warfare.
Surface warfare officers, or SWOs, are highly trained professionals tasked with the operations and maintenance of Navy ships, systems, and crews.
Like most SWOs, Monika was assigned to various ships throughout her commission. This included service aboard the forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, a Nimitz-class, nuclear-powered supercarrier.
In 2010, Monika separated from service after completing her tour of duty. It was then that she faced the stark realities of the civilian world.
Finding purpose through defeat
Monika’s boyfriend at the time was in the Navy as well. She accompanied him when he was transferred to Bangor, Washington. The couple eventually married.
However, the young veteran did not know what she wanted to do with her life. She felt unprepared to translate her knowledge, skills, and military experience into viable employment.
“So my first couple of years were emotionally challenging and financially challenging,” she shares. “I didn’t really know how to network. I didn’t know how to land a job. I was under the impression that you know you put everything on a resume, and I should be good since I was an officer.”
Like many veterans, Monika struggled to find her place in the civilian world. She ended up settling for jobs that were unfulfilling and devoid of challenge in order to make ends meet.
“I wasn’t getting any callbacks even for an interview,” she says. “I had a couple, and they didn’t go well. I couldn’t land anything, so I just ended up taking whatever job I could to make some money and in the meantime.”
The Navy veteran eventually found a job working the front desk of a small gym on Bainbridge Island. Her responsibilities were checking in people and folding towels.
Monika admits having felt “defeated;” she knew that she had so much more to offer. But she turned that sinking feeling into motivation to learn more about physical training and wellness.
“What that did was immerse myself in the fitness and health industry, and eventually, through the encouragement of the staff there, I ended up getting a certification as a personal trainer and started training people,” she shares. “This eventually motivated my return to school, which was grad school for a masters [degree] in nutrition and wellness.”
While Monika finally found her calling professionally, her personal life was unraveling.
In 2015 the Navy veteran and her husband separated, and eventually divorced. The couple mutually decided that their dog would go with the husband because he was coping with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
However, Monika was having health issues of her own. She started to experience insomnia and felt like “a zombie.” Prolonged sleep deprivation was taxing both emotionally and physically as well. So she asked her ex-husband if he observed any sleep issues during the course of their marriage.
“He said, ‘no when we were together, there were no sleep issues. You were good.'”
The Navy veteran was determined to get to the root cause of her sleepless nights. Not surprisingly her newly single life was the cause of tremendous uncertainty and anxiety.
“I know the big kind of turning point was a point of separation,” she shares. “I not only lost a husband that I had to sleep by my side in bed at night, but also [a] dog because he always let the dogs sleep on the bed. And I was like, well you know maybe that’ll make the difference because I’ve been single for a while.”
And so it was that Monika started her search for a companion dog to soothe her soul.
“I cried on my walk to the car”
Monika’s spirits were buoyed by the thought of adopting a pet, but she was living in an apartment with a no-pet policy. She spoke with her doctor about whether a companion pet would help reduce her anxiety and perhaps help her sleep.
The Navy veteran was pleasantly surprised that her therapist thought an emotional support animal (ESA) was appropriate. Federal law requires that landlords make reasonable accommodations for ESAs as long as individuals have letters from their treating mental health professionals.
ESAs are not service animals. They are companion pets whose mere presence is assistive to individuals with an emotional or physical disability.
“She actually wrote to me that day an emotional support letter and I can’t understand [or] explain it,” Monika says, “it sounds cheesy, but I cried on my walk to the car when I had that letter in hand.”
The search begins
Monika visited the main campus of the San Diego Humane Society and SPCA with a renewed sense of hope.
Since 2014 the organization has waived adoption fees for veterans in our program who adopt eligible dogs and cats from any of their facilities across the county.
Shelter staff told Monika about our partnership and how it works. She applied and was approved in January 2020, but it would be a few weeks before an older, special needs Pit Bull would end her search for a companion.
“I’m looking for a snuggler”
Ms. Pepperpot was a black and white Pit Bull mix whose first encounter with the shelter was as a six months-old stray in 2011. She was adopted out and in late December 2019 was back at the shelter – homeless and with various medical needs. She was overweight, had severe skin allergies, and a grade three heart murmur.
A senior special needs dog would seem an unlikely match for a young, athletic veteran. Yet it was a loving lean from the portly pup that sealed the deal for Monika.
“We were just kinda hanging out in the yard and then I started petting her,” she says, “and she just leaned right into me and I’m like ‘oh this is perfect.’ So that whole experience was, like, super awesome. That’s when I was like ‘oh, she’s it.'”
However, the shelter staff wanted to make sure that person and pet were a good match. It is traumatic for pets to be returned to the shelter and repeat surrendering diminishes a pet’s chances to be adopted again.
The counselor at the San Diego Humane Society took note of Monika’s fit physique.
“A little after that the handler was like, ‘you know you look really athletic. Are you sure don’t want a running buddy? She’s an older dog.’ I said, ‘no I’m not looking for a workout buddy. I’m looking for a snuggler.'”
To Monika’s delight the counselor told her that Ms. Pepperpot – even with all of her special needs – would be her perfect pet.
Perchance to dream
Although Ms. Pepperpot is not a small pup, Monika allowed her to sleep on her bed. And almost immediately the Navy veteran was able to sleep through the night.
“Needless to say, Ms. Pepperpot has been a true blessing on my day-to-day life thus far,” she says. “I have been struggling with insomnia for the last three to four years, and I have slept solid all week with her by my side despite work stressors.”
With sleep and renewed energy often comes greater awareness. Now that she was better rested, Monika found herself more in tune with those things in her life that were creating undue stress.
Ms. Pepperpot turns out to be quite an able four-legged therapist.
“I’m more aware of my anxiety,” she shares, “and she keeps me at bay with it, reminds me to slow down and appreciate the little things.”
A dog by any other name
By any measure, Ms. Pepperpot is an unusual name for a dog. But Monika would not have it any other way.
“It was actually the name of the shelter gave her,” she says.
The Navy veteran was unsure how many names her special needs Pit Bull had in the course of her life and did not want to create confusion. However, it turns out there was another reason to keep the dog’s unique moniker.
“She’s a black dog with a white patch on her chest with some black spots, so I guess why she’s Ms. Pepperpot,” she says. “It also turns out that there’s a children’s book series about a Mrs. Pepperpot that when Mrs. Pepperpot shrinks down to the size of the pepper shaker she’s able to talk to animals, and I thought that that was a pretty cool story.”
Special needs Pit Bull worth every penny
Monika had been searching for canine programs for veterans, specifically those that offer various financial benefits. Because Ms. Pepperpot is a special needs dog her medical care is more costly than a dog without her conditions.
“Fortunately, I got her an echocardiogram to find out the state of her heart and for this year the vet said like, ‘keep doing what you’re doing in terms of making sure she gets lots of rest.'”
These tests came at a high cost; an echocardiogram alone can be several hundred dollars.
But Monika is committed to giving her old special needs Pit Bull the best life she can afford. She is grateful for the support that Pets for Patriots makes available to her, including access to our hero fund for veterinary care, if needed.
“What I found surprising about Pets for Patriots is the people do not stop caring about you after you have adopted your pet. It’s not that kind of a business transaction. So it’s more, I would say, community and kind of like long-term support and celebration,” she says. “There is a lot of ongoing support.”
Still, the biggest support in Monika’s life these days is an unlikely heroine. An aging, ailing dog who in so many ways is the antithesis of her fit and spirited guardian.
Monika would not have it any other way or want a different companion. While she and Ms. Pepperpot may be something of an odd couple – it works.
“She is such a good fit for me,” she shares. “I can’t believe I’m so incredibly lucky. I’m excited every day to learn something new about her and to continue to connect with her.”