Shelter dog inspires Vietnam veteran and former medic to lead a healthier life

Shelter dog inspires Vietnam veteran and former medic to lead a healthier life

Joe is a former medic who struggled with loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic. A dog surrendered to his local shelter turned out to be just what the doctor ordered.

A gift for healing

Joe was 19 when he decided to enlist in the Air Force in 1967. He was found to have an aptitude for medicine and was dispatched to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for medic training.

Two years later, Joe was deployed to Vietnam. 

The young medic worked in Saigon – known as Ho Chi Minh City as well – in emergency rooms and on several Medical Civic Action Program (MEDCAP) missions.

MEDCAP missions provided essential medical care to Vietnamese civilians in an attempt to win hearts and minds. They included setting up daily dispensaries in villages and orphanages, and picking up patients stranded in the battlefield known as “dust offs.” 

“We pick them up and get them back to our facility, get them comfortable for transport to Hawaii or Japan,” Joe explains, “someplace with a better medical facility.”

The former medic describes his experience in Vietnam as “rather uneventful” until the spring of 1970. His unit received a call to assist a pregnant woman stranded in the streets of Saigon.

Joe and another sergeant were dispatched and delivered the baby safely. The dramatic event captured the attention of a local Air Force newspaper reporter, and Joe’s reunion with the mother and her child was featured in the local news.

“That was kind of a positive in a very negative situation,” he recalls.

It was a bright spot in an otherwise very dark war, one that Joe remembers to this day.

“…my life’s work”

In August 1970 Joe separated from service after nearly four years of duty and began his transition to civilian life. Several months later he found a job as an emergency medical technician at a major university hospital. While there, he worked in both the emergency and respiratory therapy departments.

In time the former medic took classes at local college, and held various jobs in consumer finance.

However, it was Joe’s healing gifts that would ultimately define the remainder of his working life.

In 1980 the Vietnam veteran was recruited by the United States Department of Health and Human Services for his medical expertise.

“I just like the work. Helping people, trying to make their lives better,” Joe explains.

“Other jobs after that were all related to the medical career field, which makes me think back to basic training and how [the] Air Force thought I might have an aptitude for the medical career field. And it turns out that it was – it was my life’s work.”

Much like the military, this new job sent the gifted medic where he was needed most.

Joe started working with Cuban refugees at a military base near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Soon after, he was sent to a Washington, DC area hospital. A colleague recommended him for that assignment because Joe had such a natural gift with patients.

Alone and lonely

Twenty years after separating from the military Joe would be faced with another turning point in his life. The COVID-19 pandemic hit and brought a new challenge to the Air Force veteran: loneliness.

The virus posed a serious danger to Joe. Due to a kidney transplant he received in 2016 his immune system was fragile. Joe had long lived alone, but now the additional layer of isolation from society had him searching for a companion. 

“Other than doctor’s appointments and a run to the grocery store, I just don’t mingle,” he says. “So, I’m thinking, I was remembering how great company dogs were all my life.” 

The Air Force veteran was no stranger to dogs, having had mostly sporting breeds in his younger days.

However, the deaths of Joe’s last two Labrador Retrievers was emotionally difficult enough that for a long time he could not face the prospect of adopting another dog. But the unprecedented situation encouraged the Air Force veteran to take a chance. 

Joe visited several animal shelters near him before finding a dog he wanted to meet at Prince George’s County Animal Services Division.

Since 2013, the municipal shelter has offered veterans in our program fee-waived adoptions when they rescue eligible dogs and cats. It is where Joe first learned about our companion pet adoption program for military veterans.

While at the shelter Joe met one dog who had an unknown medical condition. Despite his life’s work, the former medic was not prepared to care for a special needs pet with unknown prognosis and costs.

The search for a new pet friend would continue, but not for long.

Cool, curly-haired canine

Joe continued down the row of kennels and saw Leo, a then six year-old Cockapoo. The Air Force veteran took an immediate liking to him. 

“I thought, ‘Well, that guy looks cool. He’s got all these curls and everything, and he has a waddle as he’s walking away, like he’s showing off what he’s got. He’s kind of cool,'” Joe says. “I like him.” 

Leo had been surrendered due to aggression in his previous home. However, since their adoption Joe sees no trace of hostility in this dog who seems to love everyone he meets.

“I mean the guy, he greets everybody,” Joe says. “He is definitely not a watch dog.”

So just two days after being approved into our program the medic and the curly-haired mutt went home together.

A little help from friends

It is expensive to be a pet parent. In addition to initial costs that can run $1,000 or more, there are annual costs for food, medical care, supplies, and pet care.

Pets for Patriots was founded with the goal of making lifetime pet guardianship more affordable for military veterans by providing direct and indirect financial support to lower pet costs.

Joe was pleasantly surprised to learn that there is a program like ours to make it easier and more affordable to adopt a pet. He thinks about Pets for Patriots as a genuine benefit that goes beyond merely saying, ‘Thank you for your service.’

“That was kind of like a pleasant shock there,” he says. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘Ah, look at this. Here’s an organization that actually is reaching out, saying, ‘We can help you with that adoption.'”

One bit of assistance that the former medic did not expect was paying for Leo’s dental surgery. Joe took him to a local animal hospital about a month after the adoption – and the curly-haired pup was diagnosed with grade three dental disease.

The costs of dental surgery were beyond Joe’s means; the Vietnam veteran asked if Pets for Patriots could help.

Our hero fund for veterinary care helps defray or outright pay for essential, life extending, quality of life, and palliative care for pets adopted through our program. It is funded solely through the generosity of individuals who donate directly to this restricted fund.

Joe believes that everything that happened did so for a reason.

“If I didn’t go to that particular shelter to see this particular dog, I would’ve not have found out about you guys,” Joe says. “It was totally serendipitous that I happened to be there the right place at the right time.” 

In June 2022 Leo underwent dental surgery. Our hero fund paid the bill after negotiating a meaningful discount from the treating veterinarian.

Healing at both ends of the leash

Starting a new friendship requires trust.  

At first, Leo was unsure of his new surroundings. He would tread about carefully, observing everything in his path. Stairs seemed foreign to him. And his eyes had a fearful look when Joe reached out to pet him. It seemed as though the little dog was afraid that he was going to be hit.

“He had me wondering what life was like in his previous home because of some of the things he was doing,” Joe shares. 

To get Leo to open up to him and move, Joe had to lead. Whether it was milling around the house or going out for walks, Leo quickly followed.

In time the former medic realized that the regular exercise benefitted their growing friendship – and their physical and emotional health as well.

“If he were not here, the day could be spent sitting in a chair in front of a computer, or in front of a television,” he says. 

“He got me moving to make things better for me.”

Joe credits his new charge for inspiring him to live a healthier life. It is not unlike what the Vietnam veteran did for so many of his patients over the years. Still, he marvels at how adopting a dog has changed his life for the better.

“Leo and I are getting to know each other and it appears he’s content with his rehoming,” he shares. “Personally, each day is brighter because of my new friend.”

“He’s a freakin’ joy”

When the isolation of COVID-19 compounded Joe’s loneliness he took a life-affirming step to overcome it. In doing so he saved a homeless, adult dog from an uncertain fate and improved his own health as well.

During our routine post-adoption follow ups Joe continues to sing the praises of his newfound friend.

“He is a freakin’ joy,” Joe says. “Did I happen to mention? He’s a freakin’ joy.”

Since adopting Leo, the former medic and Air Force veteran has been telling other people about our program. He plans to recommend Pets for Patriots to a family member and an old friend, as well, both of whom are veterans.

While the pandemic and its draconian restrictions have eased mostly, Joe is a transplant recipient and must still be cautious. But the now 75 year-old veteran has no complaints. To the contrary, he describes days that are filled with joy and laughter, all thanks to a little dog named Leo.

The Vietnam veteran continues to marvel at the series of coincidences that brought him to this moment in life.

“And if I didn’t go to that particular shelter, county shelter, to see your poster on the wall, I never would’ve never known about Pets for Patriots. So glad I did find them,” he says. “You brought therapy into this old man’s life.”


  1. Pat Lazaravich

    Here’s to the boys! Very cool!!! I see you two are starting to look alike… So, it must be good!

  2. Pat Lazaravich

    Here’s to the boys! Very cool!!!

  3. Panda J.

    Thank you for your service, Joe. I’m so happy that you and Leo are now a family, and I hope you both have many happy years together. God Bless you both.

  4. Dorothy Greynolds

    Joe was called Leo by error in part of the story.

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