Zev admits his path to the Air Force was an unlikely one, but the retired neurosurgeon still found a way to serve his adopted country.
The will to live and to serve
Zev’s journey started in Israel, where he was born to Jewish Holocaust survivors. His parents immigrated there after their liberation and moved to the United States when Zev was just four years old.
The family settled in Philadelphia, where Zev grew up until he went to a nearby college to study biology. He had his sights set on medical school when the chance arose to serve in the United States Air Force (USAF).
“I wasn’t born in this country,” he shares. “As a patriot, you want to serve your country in some way.”
Zev was able to fulfill two dreams at the same time since the military paid for his training to become a surgeon.
“When I had the opportunity to serve in this way, then I joined.”
“Again it was a unique program,” he recalls, “in that they concentrate everything to a six-week period once a year.”
From 1989 through 1992, Zev was the Chief of Neurosurgery at the Wilfred Hall USAF Medical Center at Lackland. Zev is modest when he discusses the details of his medical specialty.
“I did brain surgery stuff.”
However, his tenure there was interrupted in 1991 by orders to deploy in support of Operation Desert Storm, known as the Persian Gulf War. This multinational offensive was formed to repel Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.
The now retired neurosurgeon was active duty for four years and subsequently fulfilled 10 years in the Reserves. He continued to practice neurosurgery until October, 2019.
“After 38 years,” Zev says, “it was my honor.”
From Israel, with love
It seems nearly everything in Zev’s life has an interesting twist.
The retired neurosurgeon has three children through his first marriage, which ended in divorce; all are grown. His daughter was born in Texas at the Lackland military base where Zev had been stationed. When she was of age to enlist – she did – in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
“Ironically,” Zev shares, “my father who was born in Czecholslovakia and my daughter who was born in Texas – served in the Israeli army.”
At the same time a United States-based nonprofit was organizing spiritual journeys to Israel for American veterans who had attempted suicide.
“And so the way my daughter introduced us,” Zev details, “the American vets taken to Israel are accompanied by Israeli IDF soldiers. When they had their first all-female team my daughter was one of the IDF veterans.”
As fate would have it, the organization’s founder and president is the woman who would become Zev’s wife. After being introduced by Zev’s daughter the couple became acquainted, even while living 500 miles apart.
In 2018 Zev and Judy married and started their new lives.
Together the couple have a blended family of five grown children. But they vowed to adopt a companion dog to fill their empty nest as soon as their living arrangements allowed.
“Our leases stipulated that we could not own pets,” Zev says. “Once we were situated somewhere, we were going to find us a dog.”
A dog joins the nest
On New Year’s Day 2020, one month after moving into their home in Florida, Zev and Judy visited Big Dog Ranch Rescue in Loxahatchee, Florida. Since 2012, the organization has made more than 100 adoptions through our partnership – dogs big and small alike.
“Pets for Patriots directed us to this particular place,” says Zev, who describes the rescue as “kind of an interesting place.”
The ranch is a 33-acre cage-free campus that gives a temporary sanctuary for homeless dogs looking for a home.
The property was unlike any other shelter Zev had seen. Dogs were housed in rooms, not kennels. However Zev and Judy did not get a chance to tour the expansive property.
“We got to the fifth room in the first building,” Zev says. “We wanted to get every one of them, it’s so heart wrenching.”
A Retriever mix named Benji was jumping up and down in excitement and caught the couple’s attention.
“I said to my wife, ‘that’s our guy right there.’”
Benji was nearly two years old and had been in the shelter for three months. After a few rounds of fetch and some paw shakes, the Air Force veteran and his wife were charmed.
Four-legged quarantine companion saves his retired neurosurgeon
Like many rescued animals, Benji was a little unsure of his new surroundings – and his new people.
“Perhaps the first month he was a little timid, a little cautious,” Zev recalls. “We crated him initially. We weren’t sure if he was housebroken.”
Luckily, it did not take long for Benji to adjust. And it would seem that Zev adopted him just in the nick of time. Just a few months later he and his wife fell ill to COVID-19.
“We were the 4th and 5th cases in Palm beach County,” he says.
The virus was completely draining. Even everyday tasks took an enormous amount of effort. Thankfully neither Zev nor his wife had to be admitted to the hospital, but they were both exhausted.
But the retired neurosurgeon credits Benji with expediting his recovery from COVID-19.
“My wife was not as ill as I was,” he says, “and were it not for him, I never would have moved out of the house.”
It seems the simple, daily routines associated with caring for a dog made all the difference in the couple’s recovery.
“It has been shown that Vitamin D is important in recovery from COVID and you get that from sunlight,” Zev shares. “By walking him and playing fetch, I was able to regain my stamina. Of course, cuddling was an added bonus.”
Benji’s mere presence uplifted the couple’s spirits. Equally important was that his daily routine got Zev and Judy out of the house and contributed to their full recoveries.
Benji from the block
Benji continues to get Zev and Judy outside everyday for fresh air and exercise. Weather permitting, they will walk for four miles, and the rescue dog is always eager to play with friends he meets along the way.
“Whenever we walk past someone else, he’ll start crying if we don’t let him say ‘hello’,” the Air Force veteran says.
The spirited rescue dog has become a welcome presence in the neighborhood. Other dog parents want their pups to have play dates with Benji because his boundless energy wears out their dogs.
While Benji enjoys being Zev’s only ‘child’ at home, he is not the only one in the veteran’s life. So there came a time when Zev and Judy decided to visit their grandson in Virginia.
The couple opted to board Benji because they had concerns about flying and taking him somewhere new. They did a practice run at the boarding facility to see how Benji would manage.
“We left him for two hours as a trial,” Zev says. “We picked up some toys with the downtime to make sure he had new toys to play with.”
Benji passed the test. He remained in Florida while the couple traveled to Virginia. But just a few days away from their rescue pup made Zev and Judy realize how much they love him.
“When we were away, we missed him terribly,” says Zev.
Now the pair have vowed to find a way to bring Benji along on their next adventure.
To give and to receive
Zev received some interesting gifts when he adopted Benji, including a book about how to raise a Jewish dog. It includes a discussion about who calls the shots in the household – the guardian or the dog.
In most cases, the Air Force veteran thinks that Benji is the boss.
“He’s well loved, well fed,” Zev says, “and given lots of treats.”
And the retired neurosurgeon believes that he is the rescue dog’s favorite in the household. The freckle-faced dog loves to cuddle with him whenever he gets a chance.
“My wife gets jealous about the amount of time he spends in my lap.”
Zev wonders if Benji’s affections have anything to do with the fact that the retired surgeon wakes up early each morning to feed him. Yet in the end, it matters little to Zev or to Judy if Benji favors one a little more than the other. They choose to focus on what really matters.
“I’m confident we’ve given him a better life,” Zev says.
A reason to smile
Zev knows more than most about saving lives. He believes firmly that companion pets have a real ability to transform peoples’ lives, especially veterans because of their unique experiences and needs.
“For all of those veterans, a pet is just tremendous,” Zev says. “They’ll certainly put a smile on your face.”
The retired neurosurgeon appreciates the fact that Pets for Patriots makes it simple for veterans to apply and adopt.
“The organization has certainly made it easy, and made it possible,” he says. “I don’t know how this stuff works, it’s just tremendous how it all worked out, from beginning to now.”
Zev has broached with Judy the idea of getting another dog so that Benji will have company. During his previous marriage he had three dogs and knows how they can help one another. But he is unsure if he and Judy will take that next step.
“We don’t know if we could be this lucky twice in a row.”
Since 2017 we allows veterans in our program to have up to two program-eligible pets in their household. This has helped save dogs and cats who would otherwise go unadopted, and saved many bonded pairs who would suffer if separated.
“We love him to death”
Zev admits that there is not much that Benji does that bothers him or his wife. They have learned that whenever he gets anything with stuffing he promptly shreds it – so they stick with other types of toys.
“He’s like a little baby,” Zev says.
And this particular baby loves everyone he meets. However sometimes Benji’s exuberance can be a little too much.
“Whenever we have company, he always wants to jump up,” Zev says. “He makes crying noises to be friendly. Probably the only negative thing I would say about him – he’s too friendly.”
Still, Benji is learning his way. He knows how to come when called, alerts the couple if he needs to go out, and makes sport of chasing tennis balls and frisbees.
It is a curious phenomenon that people with children look forward to the day when their nest is empty and then cannot wait to fill it again. Perhaps the silence is not so golden. For a rescue dog named Benji his three-month wait at the shelter was rewarded with a fairytale life.
“Benji has become the spoiled child that we are raising together,” Zev says. “We love him to death.”