Christian has endured more heartache than one person ever should; each setback was tough enough on its own. But it was the death of his five year-old son to cancer that ultimately pushed him to the brink of what he could endure.
“Welcome to Kuwait”
In January 1990, Christian enlisted in the Army just a few months after graduating from high school. The Southern California native completed boot camp and specialty training, and was promptly deployed to the Middle East in August that same year.
“I was a cannon crew man for 13 Bravo,” he says.
A 13B (Bravo) military occupational specialty, or MOS, refers to soldiers who load and fire howitzer cannons in support of combat infantry and tank units. Many of these advanced weapons are laser-guided and can reach targets more than 40 miles away.
“We worked on howitzers. We supported infantry and armor. If infantry is being hit hard, they’ll call fire mission. You’ve probably seen that in the movies; that means they’re calling artillery. They’d give us the target and coordinates, and one person aims it, and someone else is loading it.”
In the span of several months Christian went from a high school student to an essential member of a combat support team. And the unrelenting desert heat meant he and his fellow soldiers would train during the relative cool of night.
“When the plane landed the captain said, ‘Welcome to Kuwait. It’s currently 132 degrees.’ Talk about culture shock,” he recalls. “It was so hot in the desert we just laid in our hot tents all day – no air conditioning – trying to sleep or playing cards. At seven or eight every night we’d go out for our training.”
Christian served in Kuwait in support of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, both ordered in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. His tour of duty ended in 1994 and he separated from service with an honorable discharge.
But while the man left the war, the war did not leave the man.
“It was just constant noise at the sonic boom level. Just constant. Even afterwards, you still hear it, ringing in your ears,” he recalls vividly. “You feel the pressure of the impact. You feel the sonic boom in your body. You can’t even imagine the headaches you get from it. I still get headaches from it. The headaches are like constant mini explosions in your head.”
To this day, Christian lives with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Damage from firing powerful artillery can last a lifetime. Wounds, physical or emotional, are not always visible, but can still be debilitating. Some of the symptoms that Christian describes are similar to the “shell shock” experienced by soldiers as early as WWI, including sound penetrating his body and brain.
“It’s like you’re in a constant state of anxiety.”
Still, Christian has some fond memories from his Army career. He reflects on the intense bonds formed with fellow service members, relationships that are difficult to replicate in civilian life.
“I remember the camaraderie. Your fellow soldiers,” he says. “No matter what goes down you’re there for each other. You can’t let them die.”
The enormity of that responsibility was sobering to the then 18 year-old veteran. And while the experience elevated Christian quickly into adulthood, to his fellow soldiers he was still a kid.
“They called me baby boy,” he shares. “Took me under their wing. Showed me the ropes. They were just good guys who took care of me.”
Christian was one of the last troops to leave Kuwait in June 1991. By that time he was working at headquarters (HQ), driving the colonels. Although that particular assignment lacked the intense brotherhood he experienced on the battlefield, it was not without its own sense of community.
And the young soldier appreciated the lifestyle improvements that came with working at HQ.
“It was great, a real upgrade from the tents. We had dorms. A real commissary! Little things like that,” he says. “It’s hard to explain, but we made it a good time. It was before internet or anything like that, but we always found ways to amuse ourselves. After that, I went to Georgia and became a driver for a Lt. Colonel and stayed there until I was discharged.”
The war after the war
It did not take long for Christian’s life to unwind after he separated from service in 1994. At first, however, everything seemed to be moving in the right direction.
“I got out, married father of two, moved back home to Southern California,” he says.
Christian used his GI Bill benefits to attend college. But he was soon divorced and, in 1996, awarded custody of his two daughters.
In time the newly single father met the woman who would be his second wife. They married in 2007 and had a daughter together, Dylan Rae. A son, named Gavin, followed a year later.
The joy did not last. In 2011, Christian’s wife got a job in San Francisco and the family relocated from their Southern California home. While unsettling, the worst was still to come.
“Then Gavin was diagnosed with cancer and at the same time, we were going through a divorce. A long, drawn-out, ugly divorce.”
Gavin was 18 months old at the time of his cancer diagnosis. In August, 2012 he was deemed terminal and in May 2013 – at just five years of age – Gavin lost his life.
During the young boy’s fight his parents were locked in a bitter custody battle.
“That was the darkest period of my life. I was going through a divorce, my son was dying, and I lived in a city where I didn’t know anyone,” Christian shares. “I sued for 50-50 custody. We got into a really long and complicated court dispute. It was so complicated that Dylan and Gavin also had lawyers. What I was going through was that – it was imperative for me to spend as much time as possible with Gavin. I had to sue to see my own son. This was our time. This would be our only time together.”
Almost two years after Gavin succumbed to cancer Christian was awarded 50-50 custody of his daughter Dylan Rae.
Starting life over – again
Perhaps it was a combination of internal fortitude and Army training that helped Christian persevere. He found ways to embrace life despite his profound grief, which in turn compounded the effects of his PTSD. A year after losing Gavin to cancer he met Pilar.
The native of Madrid, Spain shared Christian’s love of jazz and travel. The pair married a year later and tried to start a family.
In 2017 the couple had their first miscarriage. Then an opportunity came along that gave them a much-needed fresh start.
“I was offered a job in New York,” the Army veteran says. “We had been wanting to get away from California, [to] start over. Get away from bad memories. But I wanted Dylan to have some stability before we moved.”
The couple moved to New York in October 2017. Christian works in creative project management for an advertising agency that services some of the world’s top brands, while Pilar specializes in digital marketing for health and insurance companies. At first she had trouble acclimating to their East Coast life, but has since settled into a routine that both she and Christian enjoy.
“I like it a lot more than I thought I would,” she says. [It was] hard at first. So cold, [we] live in an apartment. In California we had a house and nice yard. But then I got a job in New York, too.”
Christian is quick to point out their shared interests.
“We both love jazz and listen every Friday night,” Christian says. “We love to travel. We try to go to a new island every year. Pilar is from Madrid, Spain, so we also go there every year.”
Favorite spots include Aruba and Formentera, a small, idyllic Mediterranean island accessible only by ferry.
Living with losing a son to cancer
Slowly, day by day, Christian is coping with losing his young son to cancer. Despite his nagging grief he works hard to embrace the good in life, to find renewed purpose, and to look towards a brighter future.
There are few things more optimistic than bringing a new child into the world.
“We continued to try to have kids, but with no luck. We did fertility therapy and treatments. At that time, I decided to go back to therapy,” he shares. “I had been in out of therapy since college. PTSD stuff. I got a therapist through the VA (Veterans Administration). When I described what I was going through and what I wanted from life, she (therapist) thought a pet would help me get through those things.”
The VA referred Christian to Pets for Patriots to adopt a companion dog for emotional support. He wasted no time visiting Town of Hempstead Animal Shelter as soon as he was approved into our program. The Army veteran appreciated the freedom given to see all of the dogs in their care.
“They let us explore on our own. They didn’t follow us or pressure us. Just let us look. Really hands off until we choose one,” he says, adding that the process was “painless.”
Town of Hempstead Animal Shelter is a municipal shelter serving the largest township in the country. It waives adoption fees for veterans in our program who adopt eligible dogs and cats. Christian would be the first adoption through our partnership.
The speckled dog
The Army veteran and his wife knew exactly the kind of dog they wanted: the ones that no one else wants.
“We wanted a Pit Bull mix, the kind with the spots. The ones that look mean but aren’t mean,” he says jokingly.
People adopt companion pets for a variety of reasons. Christian and Pilar were looking to create a family that they had struggled to do on their own.
“We looked at it as trying to find new family member.”
Christian recalls the dogs crying and howling in their kennels as they walked through. Each wanting their attention, each hoping to earn a real home. It was heartbreaking – as it is in every animal shelter across the country.
“We discussed maybe three or four dogs we met, but we didn’t feel like any were the one. Then all of a sudden, we see Bella,” he says. “We thought, she looks like a moo moo cow! She was so docile and helpless.”
Bella was a then four-and-a-half year-old Pit Bull Terrier mix with a creamy white coat and chocolate-brown speckles. Her previous owner moved to a residence that did not allow pets.
“I bent down to her cage, let her come to me. She smelled my knee. Eventually, I pet her through the cage,” Christian says. “We asked the attendant about her and they asked if we wanted to take her for a walk, but she just wanted to be in our lap! We fell in love with her instantly.”
At the time Christian’s daughter Dylan was visiting with them. So all three returned to the Town of Hempstead Animal Shelter the next day to meet the speckled dog. But Bella was not the mellow girl they met the day before; she was barking like other dogs in the kennel.
The shelter staff assured Christian that Bella was just being vocal. He filled out the adoption paperwork, spoke with a shelter counselor, and brought their new baby home.
“You can never be in a bad mood around a dog”
It did not take long for Bella to assume her place in the family. She is comforter-in-chief for Christian, who continues to cope with PTSD, the remnants of a previous marriage, and losing Gavin to cancer.
“When things hit the fan or I get a message from my ex-wife, Bella calms me down. It’s like she senses me getting stressed. She comes right to my side and looks up at me, like, ‘Hey, you okay?'”
In fact, the Army veteran finds it almost impossible not to be cheered by Bella’s presence.
“Animals give unconditional love,” he says. “You can never be in a bad mood around a dog. You forget about small minor things and focus on what’s important. They make you go outside more. You get out in fresh air.”
Pilar respects the calming effect that Bella has on her husband – and knows that sometimes it is Bella only who can bring Christian peace. She will even cede her place in bed if needed.
“The custody battle makes him so anxious. Or the trauma from the military comes back,” she shares. “He can’t sleep, and that makes things even worse. I say, ‘Hey, I’ll go sleep in other room and put Bella in the bed.’ Then Bella lays beside him and he calms right down and he falls asleep. She is there for panic attacks. She helps him through like no one else can.”
For the love of dog
Everyday companion pets have an extraordinary capacity to heal wounds seen – and unseen. By helping people get more physically active and healthy they help restore better mental health, as well.
Bella is no exception. Christian appreciates her couch cuddles as much as he enjoys their long walks in the neighborhood.
“She’s all about love. That’s my baby. We’ll be watching TV, and she has her bed on the floor. And I look at her, and I’ll just be in awe. And we’ll snuggle in front of the TV,” he says. “I also love how she keeps me active. She has me out on walks a minimum twice per day no matter the weather. We walk two to three miles per day. It helps me. I’m getting older. If the doctor asks me if I get exercise, I can say, ‘Yes!’ Exercise is so good for managing anxiety.”
When Christian is feeling anxious Pilar encourages him to spend time with Bella. She witnesses firsthand the therapeutic power of this dog who was given up by her previous family.
“With Bella in the apartment it gives him this moment in time, a reason to get out, to get his energy up and calm him down, and that helps with anxiety,” she says. “When I see things getting bad for him I say, ‘Just go out with Bella. Walk. Just take an hour to do this.'”
Christian reflects on what makes companion pets so intensely valuable in our lives. How a simple dog can help him cope with the aftermath of divorce. With losing a young child to cancer. In the end it all comes down to love.
“It is just really really hard to be depressed when a pet is next to you and wants to give you love. So you could be having a bad day, and you think you just don’t want to deal with the weather or going outside,” he says. “But I put the leash on, take a walk, listen to my music, look around me, and all of a sudden my thoughts go to good places. And no matter where I go, whenever I come home, I know she’ll be there waiting for me. She greets me, and I just fall in love all over again.”
Pets and veterans – a winning combination
Christian had already planned to adopt a companion dog when he was referred to Pets for Patriots. He decided to use our program because he saw that we care about both people and pets.
“[It’s a] great platform that allows veterans to find partnerships with four-legged buddies,” he says. “We go through so much, so many bad things we’ve seen and been through. It helps us.”
For her part, Pilar appreciates our focus on harder-to-place pets. Dogs and cats who are older, special needs, or chronically homeless. And larger breed dogs like Bella who are less likely to find a home.
“They help dogs that are in a shelter. Especially older dogs. Dogs that have more time in the shelter. Dogs that are not easily adopted. People don’t like older dogs, so they suffer the longest in shelters. But now someone is helping them find homes.”
And while Pilar did not initially want a Pit Bull-type dog, Bella won her over quickly.
“Pit Bulls are the kindest of the kind,” Christian says emphatically. “The hate and abuse they’re known for is taught.”
The Army veteran notices that people cross to the other side of the street when they see him walking Bella. And at the dog park, people who are scared of her initially are surprised that she only wants to sit in their laps to be pet.
“Dogs make you a better person”
Christian is a work in progress. He has endured so much heartache – and still does – but with the love of Bella and his wife Pilar he is finding his moments of peace and contentment. Bella is such a transformative force in his life that he believes other veterans separating from service should be counseled to adopt a pet, too.
“I highly recommend veterans use Pets for Patriots to help with their search for their four-legged friend,” he says. “There’s no reason any veteran who wants a pet should not have one. I mean, really! This should be part of the out-processing from the military.”
Bella has seen her fortunes change in an instant. She went from surrendered dog living in a large shelter to a beloved, four-legged therapist. She has guardians who adore her, who know she is family, and who are uplifted by her mere presence. Christian sums up how Bella has changed his life for the better.
“Dogs,” he says, “make you a better person.”