Scarred for life
In 2001, José began his service in the United States Navy aboard the guided missile cruiser U.S.S. Leyte Gulf. He shipped out to Afghanistan as part of a post-9/11 deployment that would change his life forever.
“After 9/11, we deployed to Afghanistan a week later and underway to the Persian Gulf,” he recalls. “We encountered a few engagements with the enemies of this country. My most memorable experience is that of late April of 2004, where I participated in an engagement, and this experience would scar me for the rest of my life.”
During the course of his tour of duty José began to explore visual arts. At first his artwork was peaceful and uplifting, but things soon changed.
“A couple of individuals posed a threat to the job I was doing. I was given orders, and I did what I had to do. I didn’t know what to think,” he explains.
Sharing details of the event do not come easily to José, other than noting that he had to risk his own life to save the lives of others.
The Navy veteran received an award for his bravery, but the recognition could not erase the profound trauma that would impact him for years to come.
“This experience would scar me for the rest of my life,” José says. “What followed was nightmares and sleepless nights.”
The impact of this episode altered José’s artwork, which subsequently took on a much darker tone. Still, it was an outlet for him to express feelings associated with his post-9/11 trauma.
“I put all my feelings in my artwork,” he says.
But it is a higher power that helps the Navy veteran through the most turbulent times. His faith has helped steady him through many sleepless, nightmare-filled nights.
“Was this event meant to test me?” he wonders. “The only person who knows the answer to that question is G-d.”
From post-9/11 service to post-military life
In 2005 José reentered civilian life after serving four years in the Navy. Even for veterans who did not see combat or were not “boots on the ground,” the shift from service to civilian life can be difficult.
The differences in culture and mindset are stark.
“I had a hard time keeping a job,” he says. “Civilians didn’t have structure. The kids I worked with were in their own worlds. It was really, really hard – especially the first two years.”
In time José found solid ground working as a civilian contractor, yet this had its own challenges. He was not permitted to “engage or help out” any service members, as he was inclined to do. Still, the work was good for him.
As the years went on the effects of José’s post-9/11 service continued to be a concern, especially when he met Joy – the woman who would become his wife. She saw the signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the couple chose to do something about it.
“I didn’t want to be a statistic,” admits José. “What some people call a ‘crazy veteran.’”
José visited psychologists and therapists, but the nightmares continued. Eventually and by chance, the traumatized veteran found something that would help.
Healing Heeler to the rescue
After attending a relative’s funeral in 2017 José and Joy decided to spend their afternoon doing happier things. They ate Italian food and shot at the gun range.
Joy suggested they pet some dogs at a local Petco where our partner, the Michigan Humane Society, features some of their adoptable pets.
Since 2011 Michigan Humane Society has partnered with us to adopt the more overlooked dogs and cats in their care into loving military homes.
José’ and Joy visited the Petco satellite adoption center near the shelter’s Rochester Hills campus. All Michigan Humane Society adoption centers waive adoption fees for veterans in our program and offer 10 percent off at their three full-service veterinary clinics.
It was at Petco where José met Honey Smack, a then two year-old Blue Heeler rescue from Tennessee.
“She slowly came up to the cage,” José recalls. “She licked my hand and I was like, ‘She’s it.’ So we decided right then and there, ‘Let’s adopt her.’”
A Michigan Humane Society staff member recommended Pets for Patriots to José. On the very same day that we approved the post-9/11 veteran into our program he adopted Honey Smack.
“Pets for Patriots is worth it!” he exclaims. “They appreciate our service to this country and will go more than above and beyond to help us. 110% every time!”
A port in the storm
Honey Smack was promptly renamed Aegis and she is José’s lifeline.
The moniker Aegis has great meaning to José. It was the name of the ballistic missile defense system on the U.S.S. Leyte Gulf and the name of Zeus’ shield.
True to her name, Aegis is a helper in dire circumstances.
“When I have nightmares Aegis will come and lick my face and wake me up to say, ‘It’s okay.’ When I’m sad, depressed, or going through anxiety, she knows,” José says. “She’s right there. She will put her paw on me to comfort me. She will snuggle with me when I’m having nightmares and never leaves my side.”
A 2018 government study found that 41 percent of post-9/11 veterans have a service-connected disability, versus 25 percent for all veterans. As a group they struggled more with unemployment, as well.
These are circumstances that José can relate to. But he steadied his ship thanks to perseverance, a loving wife, and the fidelity of a rescue dog.
Since her adoption Aegis has overcome her timid ways, and has become a true protector of her veteran and her new home. José and his wife recently added another pup to their pack – Moose – so that Aegis is never alone.
“Aegis is very devoted to me, she is very dedicated to keeping me happy,” José says, “and she is the reason why we adopted another dog – to keep her company when I go to work.”
Now the post-9/11 veteran is focused on buying a house with a yard so that Aegis and Moose have “some room to run free.” In the meantime, Aegis loves her walks to the park and gets along with most of the other dogs in the family’s apartment complex.
Still, the rescue dog has been nothing short of a blessing to José since the day he adopted her; she has been his port in the storm.