Resilient sailor with rocky childhood guides abandoned Pit Bull through the storm

Sailor with rocky childhood guides abandoned Pit Bull through the storm

Dennis knows what it is like to grow up without a family. So it is no surprise that the Navy veteran who overcame a rocky childhood was able to help an abandoned Pit Bull overcome her fears.

Bridge over troubled waters

In an ideal world all children would grow up in a home where they feel protected and loved. Dennis and his two brothers did not have that idyllic start in life.

The boys’ father struggled with drug addiction and their mother was an abusive alcoholic. The siblings spent much of their childhood in and out of foster care.

At age 13 Dennis was adopted and finally able to put down permanent roots.

Many children with similar backgrounds struggle in school – and life – due to gaps in academic and social development of their transient lifestyles.

But Dennis created a different fate. Resilience and determination helped him defy the odds of his rocky childhood.

“I excelled in school and could have had a full ride to Ohio State, but really didn’t know what I wanted to go to school for,” Dennis recalls.

The young man opted instead to pursue a career in the military.

“I had already decided during my sophomore or junior year of high school that I wanted to join the service,” he says. “My adopted dad had siblings in every branch [of service]. I wanted to do something more job-based, so I decided on the Navy.”

In October 2013 Dennis enlisted in the Navy. He left Ohio for boot camp and A School at Great Lakes, Illinois the following summer.

True to his studious nature, the new recruit chose the highly competitive Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) of damage controlman. Dennis describes his function as being “kind of like a firefighter for the Navy.”

Full steam ahead

After school the new sailor moved to Newport News, Virginia. He worked in security during the decommissioning of the USS Enterprise, the first decommissioning of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

“It was a huge deal,” he recalls.

Dennis was transferred subsequently to Norfolk, Virginia. He deployed to the Middle East shortly thereafter aboard the USS George H. W. Bush in support of Operation Inherent Resolve – a multilateral mission to defeat ISIS.

Serving in a war zone was intense, but it did have an upside. Dennis had an opportunity to explore various port cities during his seven-month deployment.

Sailor with rocky childhood guides abandoned Pit Bull through the storm

The young sailor visited Greece, Bahrain, and the indoor ski slope at the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Each place was memorable for different reasons.

“England was really fun, too. I had fish and chips literally every meal I ate there,” he says. “Deployment is definitely what you make of it.”

However, one destination stands above the rest for its more spiritual significance.

“Israel was probably the coolest,” Dennis shares. “We did a tour of Jerusalem. I grew up going to church, so that was really cool.”

Dennis is an avid learner; when he was not at work he was studying. And his diligence paid off when he was awarded the Enlisted Surface Warfare Device. This badge is issued to Naval personnel who meet certain qualifications to perform duties aboard United States surface warships.

“You earn it for knowing specific things about the ship, or class of the ship,” he says.

So despite a rocky childhood marked by uncertainty and instability, Dennis had finally found his calling in the Navy.

“I fell in love with the service. I loved the organization and discipline,” he says. “It’s not hard to excel if you’re good at your job.”

But turbulent times were on the horizon.

Rough seas

After four years of active duty service Dennis made the tough decision to transition to the Reserves.

“I came home due to some unfortunate circumstances,” he confides. “My roommate committed suicide.”

Statistics vary, but anywhere between 17 and 20 veterans commit suicide – every day. Reversing this human tragedy has eluded military and mental health professionals for years.

Losing his friend to suicide – no less on Christmas Eve in 2018 – took a toll on Dennis. It was made worse by some demanding changes within his department at work.

The young veteran needed time to regroup, so he moved back to Ohio for some peace of mind.

Instead, 2019 brought a wave of instability to Dennis’s life that he had not experienced since his rocky childhood. But Dennis is nothing if not resilient. He took classes at a local university and worked a variety of odd jobs to support himself.

Sailor with rocky childhood guides abandoned Pit Bull through the storm

“I had five or six different jobs that year. I’m not going to lie, it kind of sucked,” Dennis says about that financially difficult year.

But the Reservist worked hard, remained positive, and the ebb and tide of life started to move his way.

As it happened, shortly before returning to Ohio Dennis met Natasha. He describes her lovingly as his “better half.”

The couple married over the summer of 2019. Maggie, a two year-old rescued Pit Bull, rounded out their small family – or so they thought.

“Maggie was really sad and bored all the time,” Natasha says.

While the big dog loved playing with other dogs at the park, home life was a different story. She would mope around and stare out the window, and only perked up when another dog walked by.

The newlyweds made plans to adopt a canine sibling in an effort to cheer up their beloved Maggie.

The one and only

Dennis and Natasha began their search online with just two criteria in mind: size and age.

The couple preferred a Pit Bull or other similarly-sized dog so that their dogs would be evenly matched when they played together.

And adopting a puppy was out of the question. Dennis was adamant about giving an older, harder-to-place dog a home. His decision was shaped by having spent so much of his rocky childhood in multiple foster homes.

The pair identified two potential adoptees at the Fairfield County Dog Adoption Center and Shelter, which joined our free national shelter partner program earlier in the year and waives adoption fees for veterans in our program.

But Dennis and Natasha only ended up meeting one dog – a three year-old Pit Bull mix named Gia. She had been found as a stray and never claimed by her previous family.

After visiting with Gia the pair decided not to meet the other dogs they had been considering.

“It’s hard to go to a place where all the dogs need a family,” Dennis laments. “I don’t want to look at more than one dog and then have to pick between them.” 

While Dennis filled out an adoption application he saw a brochure for Pets for Patriots and our companion pet adoption program for military veterans. He applied, provided his documentation, and was approved the very same day.

“The whole process was so quick and easy once I proved my military status.”

During their short time at the shelter the Navy veteran and his wife had already fallen in love with Gia. They were thrilled to learn that she met our adoption criteria.

Still – although the pair could not know it at the time – difficult times were just ahead.

Rocky childhood for man and dog

Gia’s first few weeks with her new family were a little rough. She had severe ear infections for which she started treatment while at the shelter. At one point they were so bad that her ears were swollen shut.

But a lump on Gia’s side that was originally thought to be a fatty mass turned out to be cancer. It was removed successfully and the big dog now has a scar in its place.

Sailor with rocky childhood guides abandoned Pit Bull through the storm

In addition to her physical health issues Gia had terrible anxiety.

“She was a mess,” Dennis says bluntly.

Natasha decided to quit her job to help their hard-luck hound adjust to her new life. She nursed Gia’s wounds after her surgery, tended to her ear infections, and tried to make her feel at home.

Still, Gia’s needs took a toll on the couple’s finances. They were grateful for the generous discount and excellent care provided by Creature Comforts Veterinary Center, which joined our veterinary partner program in 2019.

Two of a kind

It took time, patience and love, but the newly adopted pup is finally starting to feel at home.

“Gia has done a complete 180 in the past month or two,” Dennis says. “We pet her now and she climbs all over us and gets really excited.”

Not all of the big dog’s habits are as welcome. But like all living creatures, Gia is a work in progress.

“She loves to lick you once or twice and then bite, like an excited nibble,” he shares. “I hate it, but I love it.”

Maggie has done her part to make Gia feel at home, too. It is obvious that both dogs love having the company of a sibling.  

“Once Maggie got over the ‘What’s this thing doing in my house?’ phase with Gia, all she wanted to do was jump all over her,” Natasha laughs.

There is no doubt that Gia’s improved physical health has improved her mood as well. But Dennis believes that the fear of abandonment he experienced during his years in foster care helped him relate to his anxiety-ridden dog.

“She knows now that we’re not going anywhere and we’re her forever family,” he says. “We pet her now and she climbs all over us and gets really excited. It’s so annoyingly awesome.”

The next voyage

Dennis is rightly proud of his success despite a rocky childhood and plans to write a book someday. He hopes his story of resilience and determination to overcome his personal challenges will inspire others.

The sailor’s story is far from over, however. After a year in the Reserves, Dennis transitioned back to the structure and stability of active duty service. The entire family is excited for adventures in their new duty station in San Diego, California. 

“The furthest West I’ve been in the US is Chicago,” Dennis shares. “We got super lucky with orders for San Diego. I just didn’t want to go back to Virginia.”

The Navy veteran’s book is temporarily on hold while he serves our nation, but Dennis is eager to share any advice he can with others. These days, he is singing the praises of Pets for Patriots.

“We’ve already recommended the program to a few people,” he says. “It’s a blessing.”

Yet perhaps the Navy veteran’s most sage advice arises from his own, deeply personal experiences.

Dennis grew up surrounded by turmoil. His biological parents were unable to give him and his brothers the loving, stable home they needed and deserved. Moving from one foster home to another was profoundly unsettling.

In spite of it all, Dennis is the picture of courage and resilience. A few basic principles continue to guide his success and his happiness.

“You’ve got to want better from life,” he shares. “Stay ambitious and humble!”


  1. Adine R Hamlin

    Dear Dennis. Thank you for your service. My father was an immigrant so I share your love of this magnificent country. I am a devout animal lover. I started rescue at a very young age and although I can no longer do the physical aspects I’m still involved. All my beloved pets have been rescues. You prove you are a hero every day in your service to our country. Many people with your childhood would not have grown up to be the brave compassionate person you are. I salute you for rescuing both your pitbulls and sticking it out with Gia, who like you, eventually found the courage to love. There’s an old saying to the effect that it doesn’t matter how many times you get knocked down. It only matters how many times you get up. Blessings to you and your wife. My deepest gratitude to you, not only for your service – families serve with their loved ones, but to every individual who saves the life of an animal in need. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for continuing the rescue work I am no longer physically capable of doing.

    • Ann Hammond

      This is a heart warming story. I live in the same town that this happened. I remember when the adoption happen since I follow the shelter daily. I am so happy for them . I want to thank him for his service. I also want to thank Pets for Patriots for teaming up with our shelter and vets office who I knowvery well. I have much respect for both. They are the most compassionate peopke that I know.

  2. Yves

    I admire and commend your drive for a better life! God bless you!

  3. Panda J.

    Thank you for your service, Dennis. Maggie and Gia are both gorgeous girls, thank you and your family for giving them a loving forever home. God Bless all of you, and I hope you have many, many happy years together.

  4. Alexandra

    Dennis, you are an inspirational example of excelling over adversity and in bringing love, commitment, and understanding to rearing your adopted pets. You and Natasha did that through realizing that Maggie needed canine companionship and by saving Gia from her physical challenges. You both are committed to your dogs as family members, unlike many. May God bless you.

  5. Todd McCullough

    Dennis, thank you for your service, your perseverance, and for sharing your story. I also would like to thank you for your patience and willingness to work through all of Gia’s issues. A lot of dogs go in to new homes and if it isn’t perfect from the start, they get returned to the shelter. It can be a heart breaking cycle. When our shelter joined pets for patriots, I thought it was the it was a nice way to show our veterans that we appreciate their service while also helping our dogs. Your story makes me realize how much more this program is.
    Thank you for all that you are doing and for giving Gia the chance to have the dream family that she deserves. Bless you all.

    • Beth Zimmerman

      Todd, thank you for your shelter’s role in making this doubly lifesaving story possible. We, too, are grateful for Dennis’ resolve, not only in his personal journey, but in sticking with Gia through thick and thin.

  6. Beth Zimmerman

    Dennis, we love you back!

  7. Dennis Smathers

    I’m not crying, you are crying! Awesome article and thank you so much! Captivatingly put together! I love this organization!

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