Thad is a testament to the extraordinary power of a dog’s love. At one point he was so despondent that he attempted suicide. Thankfully, he survived.
Now the Air Force veteran embraces each moment in life thanks to a rescue dog’s loyalty and irrepressible spirit.
In 2021 Thad retired from the federal government after long careers in the military and law enforcement. He lives in Kansas with his high school sweetheart and wife of 34 years.
In time Thad would learn why they say that idle hands are the devil’s workshop. He needed to stay busy to help keep his invisible wounds at bay.
“After retirement, I realized sitting alone at home all day was not good for me on multiple levels,” he says, “so I found a part-time job in corporate security near my home. It helps get me out of the house and forces me to interact with others.”
Take a chance on me
Thad’s successes in life bely the many obstacles he faced early on. His hometown offered little in the way of prospects or hope. And because he did not like school he could not rely on an education to be his ticket out of town.
“Growing up in a small, poor, rural southern Missouri town meant that promising careers were in very short supply. I was also a horrible student in high school,” he confides. “I hated every minute of classes. Obviously, at that time, college wasn’t for me.”
However, where one door closes another opens.
What Thad describes as a “chance encounter” with the Air Force jazz band ignited his curiosity about a military career. A visit to a nearby recruiter reinforced his belief that joining the military was critical to his future success.
So in 1984 – when Thad was just 19 years old – he enlisted in the Air Force. After basic training he trained as a medic, where he discovered a compelling need to help others.
“I developed a passion for medicine and for helping people,” he shares. “I was damn good at it. I even got my civilian paramedic license and started working weekends as a paramedic, working to gain experience and sharpen my skills.”
Thad worked in emergency medicine for years, through both his military and civilian careers. Eventually he transitioned to teaching combat medicine to medical professionals. He is rightly proud of the lifesaving knowledge he has passed on to so many others.
“During OIF/OEF several of the units I helped train were deployed,” he says with pride.
Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) are the names given to the Iraq war and the war in Afghanistan, respectively.
Thad excelled far beyond the promise of his humble roots.
The young man who disliked school would excel in medic training, so much so that he would eventually become an instructor himself. Serving in the military supersized his professional and social circles instantly. It eclipsed what he could expect as a boy growing up in a small, rural town.
“I loved my time in the Air Force. I met and served with so many wonderful people.”
Among the most memorable was a technical sergeant who was one of Thad’s instructors during his medic training. Thad recalls how the sergeant used his wicked sense of humor to give wayward trainees an occasional attitude adjustment.
“He was still there when I went back to be an instructor a few years later,” he recalls. “Serving as an instructor alongside him was such a great honor.”
Thad served 11 years active duty and another four in the Reserves before separating from service with an honorable discharge. When he transitioned to the civilian world he continued his lifesaving ways.
Still, Thad could not have predicted that years later he would need a rescue dog’s love to save his own life as well.
Hope from despair
Time marched on and Thad continued to work. Meanwhile, the cumulative burden of his military and civilian careers were exacting a terrific toll on his mental health.
“Maybe because of everything I saw and did as a medic, paramedic, and during my time in law enforcement, I have been diagnosed with C-PTSD and depression,” he shares.
Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or C-PTSD, is the result of ongoing exposure to trauma rather than from singular traumatic events. Individuals diagnosed with C-PTSD may experience similar impacts to those with PTSD, but typically do so over a much longer period of time.
Thad’s mental health continued to deteriorate to the point where he tried to end his life.
“I survived a suicide attempt in 2016,” he shares. “I’ve been through all the medications, therapies, and treatments, most of which were not helpful in the least.”
After that, Thad realized that something had to change. Above all he is a survivor.
“I knew I needed something to get me out of my own head, to break my cycles of isolation,” he says. “My wife suggested we get another dog. So we started looking at our local rescues until we found the right one.”
Thad would soon discover that a dog’s love what just what he needed to remind him every day – even every moment – that life is worth living.
A dog named Lettie
Thad visited KC Campus for Animal Care, which is part of the KC Pet Project.
In addition to the Kansas City campus, the organization has shelters in Zona Rosa and Overland Park. All offer veterans in our program discounted adoptions for saving program-eligible dogs and cats.
The Air Force veteran liked the idea of adopting through our nonprofit organization. We exist to give veterans the healing powers of a companion dog or cat while saving the most vulnerable shelter animals.
True to form, Thad was thinking about how he could help others in need.
“I thought maybe if I went through an organization like Pets for Patriots there would come a time when I could give something back,” he shares.
“Maybe help some other veterans. Connect and tell my story and encourage other veterans who might be on the fence about adopting.”
Thad’s story would not be complete without Lettie, however. It was early January 2023 when the then two year-old dog with honey-gold fur would find a new home and a new purpose, as well.
“…helps me live in the moment”
A dog’s love is like no other. It is without boundary, condition, or judgement. And it was what Thad needed to remind himself that life is worth living.
Little is known about Lettie’s prior life, brief as it was. At just two years old she is a young adult dog with a cheerful demeanor and an insatiable appetite for playing fetch. It is hard to imagine how she found herself homeless, but such is the plight of millions of animals who enter shelters each year in the United States.
Lettie was quick to earn her keep. Her zest for life – and tennis balls – is contagious.
“We jokingly call her Lettie Monster and a Tasmanian devil, like in the cartoons, because she has so much energy and can be full of mischief if left unsupervised for .12 seconds. One of her favorite activities is to go to the dog park and fetch a ball I throw with a chuck-it,” Thad says. “She just throws everything she has into each launch of the ball.”
Perhaps it is this dog’s love of something as simple as a tossed ball that offers Thad a valuable life lesson. Find something – and someone – to love. Throw your whole heart into everything you do, no matter how insignificant it may seem to others.
“Lettie has helped me so much already in the short few months we’ve had her,” he shares. “She gets me out of my head, helps me live in the moment, gets me out into the weather – sunshine, rain, snow, whatever – and out of my destructive thought patterns.”
“…there is joy and goodness in the world”
Thad has spent his entire adult life saving and helping other people. Then came the day when he needed help as well. The Air Force veteran took the courageous step to seek out that help, and where it fell short he decided to adopt a companion pet.
Thad realizes that his experience will resonate with many veterans who find themselves dealing with invisible wounds. He offers them a message of hope.
“Look, I don’t think all veterans are the same. Maybe I can’t speak to all of them. But for the ones who might have PTSD, depression, loneliness or just missing something, I would definitely encourage them to adopt a pet,” he says.
“Maybe if I had Lettie earlier, she might have helped me avoid going to those dark places a lot of us know way too much about.”
Above all, it is a rescue dog’s love that is keeping her Air Force veteran grounded. She lives in the moment – like all animals – and expresses her enthusiasm over what may seem like trivial things. But in the end life is about appreciating the small things that, taken together, add up to a wonderful life.
“She’s constantly there for me,” Thad says, “and reminds me that there is joy and goodness in the world.”