Two pint-sized, special needs dogs prove that you do not have to be big to do big things. Together they saved an Air Force veteran from suicide and helped her find self-acceptance.
Formative Air Force years
BJ grew up in Jackson, Michigan in a family with deep military roots – specifically in the Air Force. One of her cousins broke the glass ceiling as the first woman to continue service after child birth. Just a few decades ago women on active duty were automatically discharged from the military once they became pregnant.
But the family has faced tragedy as well.
Prior to BJ’s enlistment, one of her cousins was killed in service. This experience inspired BJ to work in casualty assistance, helping widows and widowers of veterans receive their benefits.
Like many service members, BJ lived where the military needed her. She called places as diverse as Albuquerque, Germany, and Fort Worth home, and eventually settled in Scott Air Force Base. She treasures the lasting friendships forged along the way.
“Meeting new people who were raised unlike you and being good friends with them – I think that’s overall the coolest thing that I got from the military.”
In 2002 after nearly two decades in the military, BJ was medically retired when doctors discovered she had permanent nerve damage. The years since her separation from the Air Force have been some of the toughest in her life.
“One day you’re doing everything to the best of your ability, and the next day, boom, you’re a civilian,” she says. “And you’re out the door and you’re just shaking your head like, ‘what the heck just happened?'”
While BJ’s role in casualty assistance was deeply meaningful, she misses most the ease of meeting new people.
“The thing is, I don’t have access to the base,” she explains. “I don’t work there anymore. So you don’t meet new people anymore. Most friends got either transferred to another base, or they retired or separated.”
Coping with unbearable loss
Life since the Air Force has been challenging. BJ was evicted after her landlord stopped paying the mortgage. In addition she got divorced while raising her son. Still, she pressed on.
In March of 2017 BJ adopted what would be the first of two special needs dogs. Peanut was a then four year-old dog who is paralyzed in his hind legs. Giving Peanut a second chance at life lifted BJ’s spirits immensely.
The Air Force veteran met the sweet little dog as a volunteer at the Belleville Area Humane Society. Earlier that year the shelter joined our national adoption partner program to help the most overlooked dogs and cats in their care find loving homes with veterans.
But in a few short months life almost became too much to bear; happiness turned to despair.
“My mom called me and said that she had cancer and five-and-a-half weeks later we buried her,” BJ shares.
In the midst of it all BJ lost one of her dogs to cancer. The two deaths mirrored the loss of her father in 2014, when the Air Force veteran had to put another one of her cherished dogs to rest as well.
“So I was basically dealing with four deaths in four years,” she says.
Planning on suicide
BJ’s four-legged pack helped the grieving veteran get through her darkest days. She still had an older dog of her own and had taken in her late mother’s dog as well – all in addition to little Peanut.
Once again, the Air Force veteran tried to put the suffering behind her and move forward, but the heavy losses weighed on her.
On July 18, 2017, BJ walked through the shelter’s doors believing that it would be her last day on earth.
“My intention when I went into the humane society that day was to get everything caught up because I was planning on killing myself.”
Thankfully, that would not be the Air Force veteran’s fate.
Just at that moment a woman brought in a litter of puppies. One had two partially-formed front legs; his name is Thunder. BJ decided to foster him that very day.
“He just absolutely got my heart,” she recalls.
Don’t go changing
Within two hours of bringing Thunder home BJ knew that “the little stinker” was not going back to the shelter – ever.
“I left early that day, I came home and left my dogs in their kennels and I just held him up by my face, and I said, ‘You’re good enough just the way you are. We’ll find someone that loves you just the way you are. You don’t have to become anyone else,’” she recalls. “And all of a sudden, I just started crying. I was like, oh, that’s me, too! That’s when I knew.”
Thunder was already home.
“I knew he wasn’t going anywhere else.”
It was not only Thunder’s plight, but Peanut’s as well, that moved BJ away from suicide and back towards life.
The Air Force veteran would learn to accept herself just as she accepted the unique little dogs whom she welcomed into her pack. She did not need to change or become someone else.
The revelation was lifesaving.
A very special home
BJ has since modified her house to accommodate both dogs’ special needs.
Peanut’s back legs used to be paralyzed, but a combination of water therapy and steroids are helping her move more normally. Still, BJ does not want to risk permanent paralysis over time. She widened the steps on her back porch to make them easier for Peanut to navigate.
Although Peanut is doing well at the moment, BJ knows that some day this pint-sized pup may need a canine wheelchair to get around. She is grateful to have adopted Peanut through Pets for Patriots, knowing that we can provide assistance through our hero fund if needed.
“To have that in the back of your head that you’ve got a partner, that if something happens to you that they’re willing to help out,” she shares, later adding, “I think it’s a wonderful program.”
Thunder, on the other hand, has two club feet and is at risk of pressure sores. BJ laid out fluffy padding and pillows in her living room to give him soft places to rest. The little dog loves jumping from pillow to pillow on those days when inclement weather does not permit much time outdoors.
Still, Thunder cannot do many simple things for himself. BJ needs to carry him outside when he needs to relieve himself because he is unable to go up and down steps.
“So that’s been every single day since I got him, and it’s not a problem,” she says. “He’s a wonderful dog, so I can’t imagine my life without him.”
“…a thousand times better”
BJ is humble about the impact she has had on these dogs’ lives. She insists that they have done so much more for her.
“I know the last year and a half has been better for me emotionally, physically, mentally, in every way since having them,” she says. “They’re just what gets me up every morning and keep me going during the day.”
Above all, BJ has come to realize that perfection is an illusion – and not a standard that she, or her dogs, should strive to attain.
“None of them have to be perfect, you know,” she says. “They’ve got their idiosyncrasies, and I love them because of it, not in spite of it. I like that they’re different and weird and got problems. I don’t think I’m anybody special because I think anybody would’ve adopted them, and I wouldn’t have hand-picked these four dogs, but it works.”
The Air Force veteran could just as easily be speaking about herself. BJ no longer contemplates suicide; she makes plans to live, not to die.
With her trademark humility BJ credits her two special needs dogs for her change in perspective.
“I don’t think I’ve made their lives particularly that much better than anyone else would’ve, but they’ve made my life a thousand times better.”
Thanks to not one, but two very special, special needs dogs, BJ is at peace – and knows that she has a purpose.
“They give me a reason to get up in the morning.”
If you are or know a veteran in crisis, contact the Veterans Crisis Line confidentially 24/7.