Post-9/11 Army veteran adds “awesome” shelter dog to his pack

Jason and Cocoa

Jason served in the shadows of 9/11, joining the Army and, after service, saving the life of an “awesome” little shelter dog named Cocoa. Cocoa

In the early days of August 2001, Jason made the life-altering decision to enlist into the United States Army. He worked in Washington, DC while awaiting his entry date and, on September 11, 2001, could see and smell smoke that he later learned was the Pentagon catastrophe only two miles away. As the national tragedy wore on, Jason found out that some of his family had escaped the World Trade Center destruction.

Shaken to his core by these tragic events, Jason was more resolved than ever to serve in the military.

“I joined to obtain career experience in intelligence,” he says, “and I always wanted to serve my country.”

Just two months later, the young soldier started basic training with the 1st Battalion, 34th Infantry Regiment, Echo Company out of Fort Jackson. His first duty assignment was at Bad Aibling Station in Germany, which at one time served as a Nazi airfield and was subsequently taken over by the United States Army in 1952.

Married in 2002, Jason and his new bride lived in Germany for three years, during which time their eldest son was born in Heidelberg.

As it happens, the young veteran’s overseas assignment would not be the last. His next Permanent Change of Station (PCS ) brought the young couple and their then toddler son to the Norfolk, Virginia, where Jason served with the Joint Transformation Command-Intelligence, Joint Forces Command (JFCOM).

“I was part of the intelligence support to Corps and Division Mission Rehearsal exercises – pre-deployment training – for Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom,” he says.

In 2008, Jason himself deployed to Iraq, where he was part of a standing HQ task force based out of Ramadi in Al Anbar Province. He worked with Iraqis on base improvement projects and describes it as “definitely a memorable experience.”

After five years with JFCOM, Jason left active duty for the Army Reserves, and worked out of Fort Meade with the Army Technical Control and Analysis Element.

“I left the Reserves in December, 2012 and as a Staff Sergeant, E-6,” he says. “I supported Operation Iraqi Freedom from the start [in active duty] and through to the end of Operation New Dawn as a contractor.”

Cats and dogs and kids, oh my!

After eleven years of service – eight-and-a-half active duty and the rest in the Army Reserve – the young veteran returned to civilian life. He settled in Richmond, Virginia with his wife Christine and their growing family. While their children were toddlers they adopted Baxter, the family cat.

“We always had pets when I was a kid in Maine, cats and dogs,” he remembers. “One dog I had as a kid, his name was Rocco. He was a Toy Fox Terrier mix and followed me everywhere and always slept on my bed. He was a fun dog…we took him everywhere. Camping. Trips to visit family in Brooklyn, New York.”

Pets quickly became an important part of the Army veteran’s young family as well. They were soon joined by Bella, a six-month old black Lab mix, and Carly, a Lab mix pup. Eventually, two more cats found their way into the growing brood.

“My parents think I’m crazy,” he says.

Even with plenty of dogs, cats and kids, the family started to talk about potentially adopting another dog to balance out the family’s pack, but Jason was not on board. Cocao and Belle

“I was against the idea of adopting another dog on top of the pets we already have,” says Jason, while recognizing that Belle and Carly had become so inseparable that it was causing them anxiety, and they were becoming destructive. The two dogs would chase each other around the house, tearing up the carpet. Training did not work, and Jason’s wife was persistent.

“My wife Christine asked how I felt about adopting another dog to break the dependency between Carly and Belle,” says the Army veteran. “At first I said no.”

After repairing the carpet, the idea of adopting started to grow on Jason. He agreed to just look, which eventually turned into a failed effort at fostering a pet.

Christine was patient, and Jason ultimately agreed to adopt another dog.

Trick or treat

“It was late summer 2013,” Jason says, “when my wife told me about Pets for Patriots. I think she was searching for adoption advice and just searching shelters, and came across Pets for Patriots.”

The couple soon became more optimistic about adding the right dog to their family.

In October 2013, Jason applied to Pets for Patriots and was accepted. The nationally operating charity helps the most overlooked shelter dogs and cats find loving homes with military veterans, and provides a range of benefits to make pet parenthood affordable.

The following month the family was in the neighborhood of the Richmond SPCA and decided to stop in. The couple’s eldest son had expressed interest in a Chihuahua, of which the shelter had an ample supply.

“It just so happened that the Richmond SPCA received a delivery of Chihuahuas from an SPCA shelter in Los Angeles,” Jason explains.

Fred – since renamed Cocoa by Jason’s children – was a then five year-old, dark brown, seven pound Chihuahua/Min Pin mix with the distinction of having being born on Halloween. The little dog was brought into the holding area where prospective adopters can interact with pets they are considering for adoption.

“Then it was over,” Jason tells us. “After the SPCA staff did the ‘cat test’ and Cocoa passed, I found myself filling out the adoption paperwork. Before I had a chance to say ‘no’ or ‘maybe,’ my wife said ‘yes!’”

The Army veteran concedes that he is a bit of a pushover when it comes to his family.

“My kids and wife fell in love with him, and I’m a softie.”

Jason had the distinction of being the first Pets for Patriots adoption through the charity’s partnership with the Richmond SPCA, where veterans who are part of the program receive a deeply discounted adoption fee of $50, a ‘welcome home kit’ with pet supplies and access to the shelter’s Clinic for Compassionate Care full-service veterinary hospital. After adopting an eligible pet, veterans receive additional benefits through Pets for Patriots.

 For his part, the Army veteran was honored to be the first such adoption in his community. Jason and Cocoa

“The SPCA director worked with us as well as the staff,” he recalls. “They were excited that they finally had their first successful adoption with a member of Pets for Patriots. The adoption process was smooth and quick.”

Jason adds that the Clinic for Compassionate Care is “outstanding;” now Carly and Belle are seen there as well.

“An awesome little dude”

Now that Cocoa is part of the family, Jason admits that his wife’s instincts were correct: Cocoa broke up the dependency between Carly and Belle, and the dogs have formed a very congenial pack with “really great balance.” For Jason, the little dog conjures up fond memories of a long lost family dog.

“He really reminds me of my childhood dog, Rocco,” he says. “Cocoa follows me everywhere, and brings me great comfort and joy, especially that he’s so affectionate with my kids.”

Yet Cocoa has no shortage of love, and dotes on his Army dad in particular, sitting in his lap while watching TV or waiting for him at the door when the veteran gets home from work. This otherwise peaceable dog, however, has plenty of moxie when needed.

Jason recounts a recent camping vacation in Cape Hatteras. Christine used a cork-screw stake to attach the dogs’ leashes while the family set up the tent, when someone walked by with a large dog.

“Cocoa, all seven pounds of him, pulled the stake right out of the ground and chased the dog,” Jason laughs. “He wanted to play so bad…The owner of the other dog couldn’t stop laughing because he was just as astounded as us.”

As it happens, Cocoa does not confine his antics to the great outdoors. At home he fancies chasing the cats into the kitchen, but runs so fast that when he tries to stop he slides across the floor.

“Because the cats are larger than he is they just stare at him like he’s out of his mind.”

Although hesitant at first to add another member to their pack, Jason is thrilled to have adopted Cocoa. Already an adult, the formerly homeless dog can entertain himself, initiate play with the other dogs in the household and listens to basic commands. Still, they are working on teaching their little charge to let them know when he needs to go outside – and keeping him out of the cats’ litter box has been a bit challenging.

The grizzled Army veteran is not daunted. “Of course when we walk him he has to mark his territory, which is pretty much planet Earth.”

For other veterans considering companion pet adoption, Jason has some advice. Make sure you want a pet. Take your time. Have an idea of what kind of dog or cat you want, and visit your local shelters, rescues and municipal animal controls. Ask a lot of questions and do not settle.

“You’ll have that “aha!” moment and know which dog is for you,” he says, adding that cats can be tricky because their personalities can change so dramatically from when they are kittens to full-grown cats. For these reasons and due to the difficulty of older cats getting adopted, Jason recommends a cat that is at least one or two years old.

For now, Jason’s pack is complete and Cocoa has found his forever family with people – and other dogs – who truly appreciate him. The Army veteran sums it up best:

“He’s such an awesome little dude!”

1 Comment

  1. Susan

    I LOVE Jason’s advice: “Make sure you want a pet. Take your time. Have an idea of what kind of dog or cat you want, and visit your local shelters, rescues and municipal animal controls. Ask a lot of questions and do not settle.”

    Here’s to many, many “Aha” moments and more shelter pet rescues!

    Great story!

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