Maxie was a chronically homeless dog who spent nearly two years in a Virginia animal shelter. Her life changed when a Marine Corps veteran struggling with the weight of three combat deployments adopted her as his battle buddy.
Invisible wounds of war
The events of September 11th inspired Zhen to enlist in the Marines. In January 2002 he entered bootcamp and would soon be off to war.
“[I] deployed three times,” he says. “First to the Horn of Africa in 2004, next to Fallujah, Iraq in 2006, and finally to Afghanistan in 2018.”
In Afghanistan Zhen served as the senior enlisted advisor at the United States embassy in Kabul.
No doubt that the battle-tested veteran had many memories over the course of his long military career. But what he remembers most were the more than 250 combat patrols in Fallujah, Iraq. Each placed Zhen and his fellow service members in mortal danger. Every patrol was fraught with uncertainty about whether they would return alive.
Soon Zhen will retire from the Marine Corps with more than 20 years of courageous service to our nation. However, while the combat veteran has left the war zone behind, a battle still rages in his mind.
Zhen is one of an estimated 20 percent of Marines deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan who cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
These invisible wounds of war may not be apparent to others from the outside, but for each afflicted veteran the internal struggle is very real.
“…my PTSD was out of control”
Zhen’s fellow veterans saw the heavy burdens he was bearing. They suggested that he consider adopting a four-legged battle buddy.
It is well established that companion pets help veterans improve both their mental and physical well-being.
“After a difficult year in 2020 my PTSD was out of control,” Zhen shares, “and many comrades recommended a pet to help calm me down and keep my mind occupied.”
Perhaps it was fate that Zhen applied to our companion pet adoption program on September 11, 2021. He was approved two days later and began his search online at Fredericksburg SPCA.
Since 2018 the shelter offers veterans in our program 20 percent off adoption fees when they adopt program-eligible dogs and cats. One of their hardest to place pets was about to find her hero.
Forget me not
Fate once again was at play when Zhen was drawn to the online profile of a chronically homeless dog named Maxie.
The nearly six year-old mixed-breed pup had been in the shelter’s care since February 2020 and was featured in our Forget Me Not campaign for dogs and cats who struggle to find homes.
From the outside it was hard to find anything amiss with Maxie. She is a stunning brindle beauty with white markings on her neck and chest. Maxie is said to love watermelon and Cheetos, and going for long hikes.
However, Maxie had invisible challenges of her own. She is nervous of new people, and because of her discomfort with other animals she needs to be the only pet in the household.
Most would-be adopters shy away from animals who require extra training or care. Not Zhen. The Marine Corps veteran felt a kinship with this chronically homeless dog who had been overlooked by others for nearly two years.
Finally in late October the combat veteran gave Maxie what she needed most: love and freedom. But Zhen would soon discover that he got something that had been missing from his life as well.
Chronically homeless dog gets a home
All rescued animals take time to adjust to their new people and environments.
It can take weeks – even months – for pets to understand that they are safe and secure, and gain confidence in their new lives.
Maxie had so much to learn after being homeless for so long. But she seems to have found her purpose as a healing guardian to Zhen and a gentle canine sibling to his small children.
“Maxie’s been great and slowly settling in. My kids came to visit and she did really well adjusting to having them around,” Zhen says. “Thanks for giving me this great opportunity to find her.”
Healing at both ends of the leash
After a slow start settling into her new home Maxie has found her stride. Zhen credits her with meaningful improvements in his emotional and physical health.
“She’s been doing wonders for my PTSD.”
Maxie is able to sense Zhen’s moods. She knows when to gently nudge him to get moving and when to just stand down.
“Since I have to take her outside I am going out more, and she will literally sit at the door until I take her outside instead of locking myself in,” he says. “She sits right next to me on bad days and will sit in her spot if she knows I just want some quiet time.”
We often say that our work provides healing at both ends of the leash. Zhen benefits from a faithful friend who is highly attuned to his needs. And Maxie is learning that she has a home – and a family – for life.
Every day this dog who had been passed by for so long becomes more confident and joyful.
“We go on our daily walk,” Zhen says, “and she really enjoys running off and then coming back to check on me.”
Zhen’s PTSD was almost unmanageable when his fellow veterans suggested he consider adopting a companion pet. Thankfully, he was open to their counsel and found a once chronically homeless dog who needed him as much as he needed her.
Like any new relationship, Zhen and Maxie are a work in progress. But the transformative power of their adoption has convinced Zhen that other veterans would benefit from a four-legged battle buddy, too.
“Definitely do it,” he says. “Adopt a pet that might have been overlooked. Find a new best friend.”