Once chronically homeless dog now helps combat veteran cope with PTSD

Once chronically homeless dog now helps combat veteran cope with PTSD

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.

Photo: Fredericksburg SPCA

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.

Zhen learned about our program on the Fredericksburg SPCA website and read many of the real-life adoption stories on our blog.

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.”


  1. Sandra and Joseph sobilo

    As an animal rescuer, I know how hard it is to rehome a dog or cat that may have a few little personality quirks. Many potential adopters look for a ‘perfect’ pet when none of them are perfect, including we humans.

    A million thank you hugs for your many years of service and a special thank you for adopting Maxie. Hopefully, your story of giving her a chance, will enable other pets who need a bit of patience, to find their forever home.

    • Zhen

      Maxie even grew on my mom, afraid of a y creatures with fue or not. Maxie is so loving and protective of my family,I sleep better knowing she’s next to me.

  2. Candis Stern

    I loved this story. People and animals — both — just need a chance to heal. Doing it together has helped you both and given Maxie a home that was desperately needed. So glad that you both found your stride and understand one another so well.
    I wish you both continued companionship and a very happy future!

  3. Gary Gonzalez

    So happy that you found a loving, caring & attentive companion animal, Zhen! As a fellow veteran who struggles with PTSD, I know Firsthand the power & healing that companion pets provide for us… In my case, it was a feral/outdoor mama cat along with her son & daughter who brought tremendous Love & Healing to my life… They gave me a new sense of Purpose and Reason to live… Just when I had reached all sense of hopelessness & despair, these 3 little kitties (Angels) appeared in my life for me to “save” them; but in all Actuality, they were the ones who SAVED ME!!!! Thank you so much for your Service & Sacrifice to this county, Zhen! Much Love and Many Blessings to You & Maxie : )

    • Zhen

      Thank you Gary! Believe it or not Maxie being 5 or 6 times bigger then My brothers cat. Thinks she’s sketchy hahaha the cat will hit her when she’s too close to sniff her. I am 18 years older then my brother, fu ny how I retire and he swcided to join the Marine Corps this same year.

  4. Mary Eaton

    Hi Zhen,
    Thank you for your years of service. With Maxie by your side and those children you will be raising you have your hands full. Smile.
    Good luck transitioning to this new chapter in your life and knowing that you are appreciated by both two-legged and four!

  5. Virginia Matney

    Thank you for your many years of service Zhen! And thank you for your patience and perseverance in giving Maxie a well deserved loving home. I am so glad that Maxie helps you with your PTSD and that you are helping Maxie trust and love again.

  6. Mary Armbrust

    Zhen, thank you so much for protecting us post-911 – such a difficult time for this nation! Thank you for giving Maxie purpose and love – she must’ve been waiting for you, which is why her prior homes were unsucessful. Every blessing to you and your family as you transition to civilian life.

    From a Cold War veteran.

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