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.
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.
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.
“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.
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!”