Michael never imagined that one day he might wonder if life is worth living. But a dog he adopted to help fight back his demons makes sure that he takes life one day at a time.
Just a regular kid
Growing up near Chicago, Illinois, Michael always considered himself a pretty regular kid. He was raised in the shadow of a large auto plant, which may account for his love of cars or almost anything with an engine.
After a short stint working at a local fast food restaurant Michael worked briefly at a body shop owned by a family friend. Then 9/11 struck, changing our nation – and Michael’s world – forever.
Yet out of this unspeakable tragedy Michael would find his sense of purpose.
The invisible wounds of war
In 2003 Michael enlisted in the Army, inspired by the events of 9/11 less than two years prior. His first military occupational specialty, or MOS, was a fitting tribute to his love of cars and trucks: building equipment to be demolished in training exercises.
As a heavy equipment operator Michael learned to operate road graders and other vital skills required for this engineering specialty.
Two years later the young veteran was stationed at Fort Richardson, Alaska, where he trained as an intelligence analyst. These professionals prepare a range of strategic and tactical intelligence in support of the combat commander.
In 2007 Michael was deployed to Iraq, where he had a large role as an analyst. The work was stressful and took a heavy toll on him.
“I turned 21 when I was over there,” he says, “and the worst part about it was that I coped with Iraq the wrong way.”
Like many veterans who serve in combat zones or experience trauma Michael does not like to talk about his experiences. Still, the invisible wounds of war have haunted him ever since.
Now stateside, Michael continues to serve in the Army Reserves.
Soldier leaves the war, but the war does not leave the soldier
The young Army veteran made a series of poor life choices after returning from Iraq. He was in a troubled marriage that ended in divorce shortly after he transitioned to the Reserves.
But the most destructive choice Michael made was the way he dealt with the horrors of war.
“Coping with Iraq was one that was more or less a trial and error deal initially. I had made bad decisions when I first got home. I was generally depressed, with days that I just didn’t want to get out of bed or couldn’t concentrate,” he shares.
Michael turned to alcohol in an attempt to dull his pain; it only made it worse. He lost his grounding and his sense of purpose in life.
“While I have never drank while I was on duty, binge drinking was a key aspect of my coping,” he says. “The daily stress of everything that was occurring was slowly numbed – in my own mind – by alcohol.”
“…I was chasing my own grave”
Michael would move back to Illinois only to face a deepening depression, which in turn led to more drinking.
“While I hate to admit it, I had even fallen to the point of drinking when alone and also when I had nothing to do. If it was sunny, I would drink in celebration, if it was rainy I would drink because I was down. Eventually I told myself I just didn’t need to have a reason to drink. I would drink without a need.”
Thankfully the Iraq war veteran came to a stark realization that would mark the beginning of his recovery.
“Life finally caught up with me one day, after drinking myself to the point of having alcohol poisoning and being found by my mother. I had an epiphany,” Michael says. “Essentially I realized I was chasing my own grave and not living.”
Battle on the home front
The Army veteran knew that he needed to take the initiative to get his life back on track. He returned to school and finished his degrees, re-enlisted in the Reserves, and spent hours at the gym.
“Essentially I threw myself into work in order to take my mind off the wanting to drink and the needing to drink.”
Michael’s decision to return to service with the Reserves was a way of going back to what felt familiar – and safe. Life outside of the military can seem daunting for many veterans, especially those who have deployed or been in combat environments.
“I can survive and function in it,” he explains, “whereas in the civilian world it’s still a lot of unknowns.”
However, it was the arrival of a very special dog in Michael’s life that accelerated his recovery and made him realize that his life is worth living.
Along came Ellie
During this time Michael met the woman who would ultimately become his fiancée. The couple had talked about adopting a dog, something the Iraq war veteran always wanted to do.
So on one day in July 2019 Michael visited our partners Champaign County Humane Society, which joined our free shelter partner program in 2010.
And there was Kellie. She was a large, yet considerably underweight year-old Rottweiler-German Shepherd mix who entered the shelter a few weeks prior.
“We looked at Ellie and we got her out in the play area. It was an automatic connection, she was like my right hand,” Michael recalls. “I could do something and she’d react to it, so it’s almost like she was already trained for me.”
Upon learning that Michael was a veteran the shelter staff told him about our companion pet adoption program. We worked with Michael and got him approved in time for him to take Kellie – since renamed Ellie – home.
Little did the war veteran know that this wayward dog would help renew his sense of purpose.
Michael’s struggles were not over, but his life had started to move in the right direction. He appreciates that Pets for Patriots was quick to help with the application, adoption process, and follow up as well.
“I mean Pets for Patriots were a very big help,” he says. “It was awesome, we got the $150 gift card so that went automatically went to food for her toys her.”
Michael enjoys additional savings by using one of our longstanding veterinary partners, Beaumont Animal Clinic. Ellie goes there for her care, with the exception of one panicked visit to a nearby emergency veterinarian. Michael chalks up that episode up to normal pet parent overreaction.
One day at a time
We like to say that every adoption saves two lives, that of person and pet. This is no truer than with Michael and Ellie.
The Iraq war veteran saved the big dog from an uncertain and potentially grim fate. And every day Ellie shows Michael that life – his life – is worth living.
“I don’t drink much anymore after Ellie,” the Army veteran says. “Since I have had her, I don’t drink nor want to. She gives me a reason not to drink.”
The discipline, structure, and sense of duty that are part of military life often makes veterans well-suited to pet adoption. By saving an animal in need veterans gain a renewed sense of purpose. And some – like Michael – a compelling reason to live.
“I love that dog more than life itself,” he says, “and she has kept me solid in the aspect that she is my coping mechanism now. Taking care of her put me in a position where just being around her and seeing her makes me feel happy again.”
Dogs and cats help us fall in love with life again. And Ellie is a living testament to the fact that her soldier’s happiness cannot be found at the bottom of a bottle.
“She is more than a dog”
Adopting a companion pet often means healing happens at both ends of the leash. Although Michael works hard to overcome his challenges, he is helping Ellie with her own problems as well.
“She most definitely had came from a rough background and is skittish around certain things,” he explains, “but I take pride and joy in calming her down and making her feel more comfortable.”
The pair spend as much time together as possible. Ellie reminds Michael that life is worth living, and how even simple things – like a game of fetch or enjoying the sunshine – are experiences worth treasuring.
Even Ellie’s little quirks are reasons to smile. She hops around when she is excited and likes to steal socks. Still, her most important role may be the one that comes so naturally.
Companion pets are nature’s four-legged therapists.
“While I may have the urge to drink, spending time with her means more to me than anything in the world. She saves me more than she can comprehend and every day is a new adventure with her. She is more than a dog,” Michael insists. “She’s a part of my family, she’s also my rock.”
Life is beautiful and life is worth living
Ellie has done wonders for Michael’s physical and emotional well being. Her need for walks and outdoor exercise have challenged him to work even harder at his health.
“She definitely has increased my activity,” he says, “walking everyday – rain or shine. I even added a rucksack to help me stay in shape, too.”
The Army veteran hopes that sharing his story helps other veterans who may wonder how, or if, a pet could help them. Adopting Ellie has reminded him that his life is a gift – a message he wants others to hear as well.
“You guys should be getting some federal funding in my opinion just for the way she has been able to change my life,” he says. “It’s a struggle every day, but she makes the struggle every day less of a struggle – I guess if that’s the easiest way to put it.”
Michael now has a robust support system that he did not have upon returning from Iraq, including the woman he is set to marry and a big rescue dog who keeps him grounded. Together they are family, through thick and thin.
“Ellie is really like my kid. I don’t have any kids so she’s my baby,” he says. “When I’m away from her, it’s like she’s a piece of me. Ellie is a big part of my life that I don’t ever want to change.”