Pit Bull with a purpose consoles Navy veteran coping with unspeakable loss

Pit Bull with a purpose consoles Navy veteran coping with unspeakable loss

Betsy, a retired Navy veteran, received a phone call that her 36 year-old daughter, Jessica, had passed away. By her side at that very moment was Ava, a rescued Pit Bull with a purpose.

This once-abandoned dog would help ease Betsy’s suffering and that of her young granddaughter, Madeline.

A healer at heart

Betsy has years of experience giving aid and comfort to those in need, both in and out of the Navy. She served as a hospital corpsman in the Navy, where she acquired military experience and education opportunities. However, she did not plan to stay in the Navy until her retirement date.

“I met my husband in Guam, where he was active duty at the time,” says Betsy. “I got out, came home, and we got married in Virginia Beach. Then we got stationed in Hawaii.”

The veteran later gave birth to a daughter, Jessica.

“After our tour in Hawaii, we were transferred to San Diego, North Island. That was when our marriage began to suffer,” she shares. “Divorce was imminent.”

Back to the Navy

With a child to care for, Betsy needed to act. She went to a Navy recruiter to ask if she could reenter the service. The Navy told her that she could return, but not as a corpsman.

Betsy was ultimately offered a job as an aviation electrician – a change which she later considered to be the most rewarding part of her career.

One day, the squadron’s commanding officer called Betsy to his office and asked her to consider becoming the full time drug and alcohol program advisor.

“I said yes, sir!”  

After graduating from a counseling school in San Diego, Betsy was stationed all over the world in places such as Iceland, Guam, and various cities throughout the United States.

The puppy in the window

Jessica grew up to join the armed forces, just like her mother. She served in the Air Force as a combat weatherman. Betsy always admired her daughter’s intelligence.

Pit Bull with a purpose consoles Navy veteran coping with unspeakable loss

During Jessica’s tenure in the Air Force she gave birth to a daughter of her own: Madeline.

Jessica and Madeline visited Betsy while on leave. At that time the Navy veteran was living in Florida. One day during their stay, Madeline asked her grandmother if they could go to the grocery store.

A couple of blocks down the road, the Lake City Humane Society was holding a pet adoption event at a local pet store. The event caught Madeline’s attention.

“She [Madeline] saw a dog and said, ‘I wanna see that puppy,’” Betsy recalls. “And I said, ‘okay, if we come out of the store and if the puppy’s still there, we’ll go look at it.'”

The family grows by four paws

After leaving the grocery store Madeline eagerly checked the adoption event for the puppy. Sure enough Ava Marie – named Chloe at the time – was still there.

“So we went over to look at her and they let her out of her crate, and Madeline was the first one to walk her,” Betsy says. “She was two and Ava just kind of sensed that she was a baby, and they walked by the side of Petsmart in the grass and Ava just kept glancing back and looking at her like she was kinda making sure she was okay.”

Despite Madeline wanting “the puppy,” Betsy was not sure she was ready to adopt a dog.

And Ava was not actually a puppy; she was four years old and seventy pounds. As Betsy watched Madeline and Ava interact, she was taken by the big dog’s awareness of her granddaughter’s vulnerability.

That encounter may have been the first clue that Ava is a Pit Bull with a purpose. But Jessica and Madeline were soon returning to Louisiana. This made Betsy all the more uncertain about bringing a companion pet into her life.

Still, the homeless dog tugged on Betsy’s heart.

“…She just looked at me and stood there, and I looked at her in her eyes and it was like magic. It was a connection of the souls.”

Adoption made easy

The Navy veteran returned home with her granddaughter. And Jessica would convince her mom to adopt Ava.

“She said, ‘ma you have never not had a dog,’” Betsy laughs. “She convinced me my house was not right without a dog in it. I was just like, aw… alright.”

After Jessica persuaded her mother to adopt the gentle Pit Bull, Pets for Patriots made the adoption process even easier – and more affordable.

“One of the workers said something about Pets for Patriots, which I had never heard of before,” says Betsy. “I figured it was a good deal.”

Pit Bull with a purpose consoles Navy veteran coping with unspeakable loss

The Navy veteran went home and applied to our program. Through our partnership with Lake City Humane Society, Ava’s adoption fee would be waived. And Betsy would receive other benefits as well.

Betsy received her approval from Pets for Patriots and went to adopt her Pit Bull with a purpose. That was early February of 2012.

Ava’s haunting history

“When we got her, her name was Chloe,” Betsy says. “My daughter said that she was not a ‘Chloe.’”

The Navy veteran said they should wait and see how the dog behaved in order to choose the most fitting name for her.

“So we did that, and my daughter named her Ava. I said okay, she can be Ava Marie,” she says. “I gave her a middle name, and my daughter gave her a first name.”

Ava blended right in with the family.

“She’s very affectionate. I hope that affection is gratitude,” says Betsy. “I hope she’s happy, and glad that I adopted her.”

Ava was abandoned at the Humane Society in the middle of the night. She had ruptures in her ligaments, otherwise known as tibial plateau leveling osteotomy (TPLO).

Betsy quickly brought Ava in for corrective surgery. She had noticed Ava’s limp while she played with Jessica’s dog, Max.

A change in tide

After receiving an honorable discharge from the Air Force, Jessica and Madeline moved to Florida. They stayed with Betsy temporarily, but long enough for Madeline to grow very comfortable there.

In time, Jessica got her own apartment in Florida, but started having difficulties. The Veterans Administration diagnosed her with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is an often debilitating mental condition that afflicts an estimated 30 percent of Vietnam veterans and as many as 20 percent of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Pit Bull with a purpose consoles Navy veteran coping with unspeakable loss

“She started fighting that, and that was just…I don’t know,” Betsy says. “That was kind of the end of her, I think.”

The Navy veteran was no stranger to PTSD. She had been diagnosed in the early 1990s and knew that her daughter needed help.

“I told her, ‘I’ll take care of the baby, I’ll take care of the dog, if you have bills I’ll pay them, you just concentrate on getting better,’” says Betsy. “She [Jessica] said, ‘Mom, please just watch the baby.’”

The call

Jessica was admitted to the VA hospital in Gainesville, Florida, where her physical health took a dire turn.

“Then they called me, Madeline was with me,” Betsy says, referring to the hospital. “They said that she was septic and the infection had spread to her heart.”

Sepsis is a potentially life-threatening response by the body to an infection. It is considered a dire medical emergency.

Jessica suffered two strokes. She was in a coma and too weak for surgery. The doctor called Betsy to request a do-not-resuscitate order (DNR). She declined it.

A short while later doctors updated the Navy veteran on her daughter’s condition. Jessica was not improving and the hospital again asked for a DNR; this time Betsy allowed it.

Betsy stayed with Madeline and contacted a friend near the Gainesville VA hospital where Jessica had been admitted. She asked her friend to hold up the phone to her daughter’s ear.

“I told her that it was okay, that she could go. I would take care of Madeline, that she did not need to worry; that she did not need to fight any more,” says Betsy. “I knew she was miserable here and G-d was going to take her where she could be happy. And she didn’t have to worry about any personal struggles, no PTSD. She didn’t have to worry about any of that any more. G-d would take care of it, she could help raise Madeline from heaven.”

Unspeakable loss

Jessica passed away the very next day. Ava was downstairs right next to Betsy when she got the news. The big dog kissed her, and Betsy hugged her tight.

“I had to wait a little bit and figure out how I was going to tell Madeline,” she recalls. “How do you tell a little girl?”

Madeline was eight years-old at the time and knew that her mother was sick.

“I’ve done a lot of hard things in my life, but telling Madeline her mommy is gone was the most difficult thing,” Betsy shares. “I can’t think of a worse thing…”

Pit Bull with a purpose

“I’m glad I wasn’t home when I got called about Jessica. I was at my brother’s house, I was surrounded by family. So G-d decided to put me there when this terrible tragedy had happened,” Betsy shares, “so I could be surrounded by love and understanding. And G-d put Madeline with me because He knew He was going to take Jessica and He didn’t want her to see when it happened.”

Pit Bull with a purpose consoles Navy veteran coping with unspeakable loss

Betsy is resolute when she reflects on her daughter’s premature passing.

“I will miss her to the day I die. But I know that she is happy and she finally found peace.”

Jessica always wanted to be sure that Madeline was raised with a dog. Betsy believes this was another reason the Pit Bull with a purpose was brought into their lives.

“Ava is either at the door, or at the window watching her bus,” Betsy says. “Ava  wags her whole hiney, and I swear she’ll dislocate her hip or something to greet her. Madeline gets right down on the floor, and Ava kisses her.”

Ava has been a comforting presence for Betsy and Madeline.

“She [Ava] is very compassionate with sadness. I would wait until Madeline was in school where I would have my cry time…because I didn’t want to do it in front of her,” Betsy says. “Ava would be right there with me, she would lick my tears. She would just look at me, ‘I’m here, it’s gonna be okay.'”

Life goes on

Betsy could not imagine life without Ava. The once abandoned dog is truly a Pit Bull with a purpose, and has changed her veteran’s life.

“I’ve been more caring, more patient, because you know when she was sick you have to be patient, you have to be empathetic, you have to care for her,” she explains.

Ava has helped Betsy have the strength to navigate Madeline through their darkest hours. The three are family, and Jessica’s spirit is with them always.

“Mommy died and she is now in heaven,” Betsy recalls telling her granddaughter. “But she will always be with us and she will always love us and take care of us.”

Madeline is now a teenager and, like her mother and grandmother, companion animals will always be a big part of her life. She wants to rescue animals when she “grows up.”

Betsy will live the rest of her life with a tragedy no parent can imagine. Yet, she believes that everything happens for a reason – including having Ava in her life.

“You don’t really get the dog you want,” she says. “You get the one you need.”


  1. Alyson

    Thank you for your service. I’m so sorry for your loss. You seem like a really wonderful person and your love for Madeline, as well as the comfort of Ava, is such a blessing.

  2. Mary Eaton

    Hi Betsy,
    Thank you for sharing your story. Perhaps it helped to lighten your load in telling it. I am sorry for the loss of your daughter as well at Madeline’s loss of her mother. Ava has found herself in your care with a gentle spirit that can heap comfort to both old and young alike. You’ve become Jessica’s voice and please do share stories with Madeline as they come to mind. If that is a tough subject then it might help you to put some memories on paper to present to her one day in the future. As time passes you will think of many blessings if you look for them.
    Gratitude to you and Jessica as well for the years of service to our country. I too believe she has found her peace.
    Blessings be yours.

  3. Dee

    It’s animals who give us unconditional love.

  4. Ron

    I am glad you have some family to help you through.
    Animals can be amazing. They don’t ask any questions. They just love you. And, for me, that helps.
    I hope things get a little better every day for you.

  5. Panda J.

    Thank you for your service, Betsy. I am so very sorry for the loss of your daughter, but am glad that you have Madeline and Ava there to help you cope with your heartbreak. The three of you will take care of each other, and make it through the hard times. God Bless all of you.

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