Special needs pup a lifeline to Navy veteran dogged by depression

Hard knock life for stray pup

Shadow is a pup who earns the moniker “special” not only due to her physical challenges, but for how she is able to uplift the Navy veteran who adopted her from the grips of his depression.

The Lab mix was not even a year old when she arrived at the Jacksonville Humane Society with serious signs of a hardscrabble life. Shadow had been transferred from another shelter where her tail had to be amputated due to a pre-existing degloving injury. Follow up radiographs revealed that her right hind leg was broken in not one, but two places, requiring additional medical intervention. Mark and Shadow

No one knows whether Shadow’s injuries were the result of human abuse or the realities of life of a stray. She was in recovery for about one month before she could be eligible for adoption and it was nearly another month thereafter until she found her home with a Navy veteran who needed her as badly as she needed him.

Service at sea

Mark served honorably in the United States Navy from July 1997 to February 2007, starting out as a out as a Deck Seaman aboard the U.S.S. Gettysburg CG-64 in support of Operation Desert Fox. The primary mission of the operation was the destruction of Iraq’s capacity to produce and deliver weapons of mass destruction.

“We launched 69 Tomahawks at Iraq,” Mark recalls.

The military operation was the largest against Iraq since the Persian Gulf War until the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). The Navy veteran remembers well the events of 9/11 that gave birth to this historic operation.

“I was on my second tour overseas, but this time I am a Second Class Damage Controlman on the U.S.S. Gettysburg CG-64,” he says. “We were in the Mediterranean Sea when we turned and were heading to sit off the  coast of Israel. I was sitting down in berthing watching the World Trade Center, Pentagon and Flight 93 being attacked by terrorists.”

Early signs of troubled waters

Following his deployments about the U.S.S. Gettysburg, Mark was stationed in Naval Support Activity (NSA) Northwest Annex Navy Base in Chesapeake, Virginia for shore duty.

“I had some good experiences and had some bad experiences,” he says, including riding out Hurricane Isabel.

While the hurricane passed, Mark noticed other troubles did not. The sailor he started to notice signs of depression and, to help him cope, he adopted his “first four-legged friend.” His name was Sargent. 

Depression and anxiety take their toll

Mark’s shore duty over, the sailor was once again sent out to sea. He joined the U.S.S. Robert G. Bradley, which was already on deployment in a drug interdiction operation, one of many it conducted with the cooperation of other naval and Coast Guard assets. 

It was during this sea duty that Mark’s world began to fall apart.

“The stress of the long hours and the overwhelming of burning people for their simple mistakes just took a toll on me,” he shares. “I ended up having a nervous breakdown.”

Mark was taken off the ship and placed at the Southeast Regional Maintenance Center (SERMC) at Mayport, Florida. While there he underwent treatment for anxiety and depression at the mental health clinic at Naval Hospital Jacksonville.

From sailor to civilian

In February, 2007 and after nearly a decade of service, Mark was honorably discharged from the Navy.

“That is a total of nine years seven months, so with that being said I just round my time up to ten years,” he says. “It makes it easier saying ten years then saying nine years seven months.”

Like too many veterans – particularly those coping with mental health challenges – Mark had a difficult time transitioning to life after the military. He was dogged by a deep depression that only intensified as time went on.

“I did try to work, but was unsuccessful in doing so due to my depression and anxiety,” he says, adding that he went back to school for a degree in business marketing until his wife’s health motivated him to change course.

“I changed my major after I learned that my wife had a medical issue,” Mark explains. “I ended up studying biology in case I reached a point in my life where I could work again.”

Although attending school helped Mark focus on the future, it only served to worsen his depression and anxiety – so much so that he left school before completing his degree.

“…the hardest time…”

Mark now had more time on his hands and wanted to do something positive. After consulting with his wife, Robin and their young son, he made a bold decision to help others – the four-legged variety.

“My family and I decided that it would be neat to become foster parents for the Jacksonville Humane Society,” he says, “so we fostered puppies and kittens to help them out until they were old enough to be adopted out.”

Fostering helps shelters alleviate crowding by designating certain pets for temporary, in-home care and socialization until they can be adopted.

“During the time of us fostering, our beloved Sargent was getting sick, so his time was coming fast,” says Mark, noting that the dog had been a member of the family for 12 wonderful years.

“In April of 2015 we ended up having to put our beloved Sargent to sleep. That was the hardest time, even for the family,” he says. “With him gone it made it hard on me, and my depression and anxiety had taken a toll on me more than ever.”

Special needs pup a lifeline from above

One month had gone by since Sargent’s death when Robin saw a dog at the Jacksonville Humane Society who caught her eye. She asked if the family could foster the young Lab mix. After a provisional approval, Mark and his son came to meet their newest charge.

“She came right up to my family and loved on them,” he says, “and then came up to me and loved on me as I walked out the door.” Mark and Shadow_cropped

Named Brittney at the time, Mark changed her name to Shadow.

“I didn’t really like Brittney and it just didn’t fit right,” the Navy veteran explains. “Shadow fit perfectly because she was constantly following me everywhere I went.”

The special needs pup was still receiving follow up medical care for her tail amputation and broken leg. As fosters, Mark and his wife were responsible to bring her in for scheduled visits at the shelter’s full-service veterinary hospital. Shadow’s next appointment was particularly memorable because it marked the end of her time as a temporary member of Mark’s family.

“Shadow was scheduled for a check-up at the Jacksonville Humane Society,” he recalls, “and that same day she was released for adoption – so we adopted her that special day in May. That was when her name fully changed to Shadow at the Jacksonville Humane Society.”

Once down on her luck, dog makes a difference

Mark adopted Shadow through our partnership with Jacksonville Humane Society, which offers a deeply reduced adoption fee of just $20 to veterans in our program who adopt eligible dogs and cats – adults, special needs animals and large breed dogs.

“Now I got Shadow by using the Pets for Patriots program at the Jacksonville Humane Society which has turned out to be a very outstanding program,” says Mark, who has since become an advocate for our charity. “I am helping to spread the word about the Pets for Patriots program to military members that are returning back from areas of war.” 

While Mark has high hopes that Shadow can be a trained assistance dog for him, the special needs pup is proving to be a natural healer.

“Shadow has helped my wife even when she has a seizure and she even helps me when I am feeling depressed,” says the Navy veteran. “Shadow has made a difference in our lives.”

Due to her young age and physical condition when she was first rescued, it is unlikely that Shadow ever received any form of love or training. She remains a work in progress. For example, she no longer crosses back and forth in front of Mark when they go for a walk, and has learned to stay by his side.

Despite her difficult beginnings, Shadow is eager to please – and Mark is equally eager to train her to the extent of her emotional and physical abilities. They pair have started a dog manners class at Jacksonville Humane Society and, when they graduate, plan to pursue the Canine Good Citizen class as well.

In this and so many other ways, the young dog’s life is a 180-degree turn from her past. Once homeless, Shadow now sleeps next to Mark’s and Robin’s bed at night.

“She has special bed on my side of the bed,” says Mark, “and gets a treat at night right before bed. Since Shadow has an injured right hip, a missing toe and tail, I give her a hip and joint supplement in moist dog food.” 

While every veteran and pet in our program has a unique story, some plot lines are hauntingly similar. Many veterans put their own challenges into a different perspective when they are faced with caring for companion animals who have physical and emotional needs of their own. Often, it is the men and women coping with the most stubborn life challenges who tend to adopt those dogs and cats who are in greatest need.

So far, Shadow is following the paw prints of other adopted pets before her, and Mark and Robin are convinced that Shadow came into their lives for a reason.

“My wife and I believed that Shadow was brought to us by our beloved dog Sargent,” he says. “This is where my family and Shadow will start a new chapter in our lives together.”

Visit us online to learn how we save lives of person and pet. 


  1. Carol Sprowls

    I am sorry Mark, I got your name mixed up with Michael but I am thankful that you have Belle and she has you, Michael. Thank you both for your service and how much you are appreciated.

  2. Carol Sprowls

    Michael, thank you for your service. I am tearing up as I read your story. I despise what a toll this war has taken on active military and their families. I really admire you and your family helping out the voiceless animals in need and the way the animals are helping our Veterans. I too suffer from depression and took an OD and laid down in bed and my rescue blind Boston Terrier laid down beside me in bed. It was then I
    couldn’t leave my dog. He too had to be PTS 2 years later. Shadow is a good-looking, lucky little girl. Thank God you both found each other.
    Many blessings to you and your family, plus Shadow.

  3. Michael

    Thank you so much for the Wet Nose blog. As a disabled vet from the vietnam, I really think it’s great that current vets are able to get the help & love that these wonderful dogs offer and that the vets can also give to the dogs. This story of Mark & Shadow is a great example. I’m grateful every day for the love and help that I recieve from my Labrador service dog, Belle. At almost 2 years old, she’s still learning, but helping her learn is a reat part of my life.

    • Beth Zimmerman

      Michael, thank you for your service and for sharing your experiences. We hear from other veterans as well that helping their pets learn – or even overcome their previous lives, which were often not the happiest – is a form of therapy for them as well. Belle sounds like she has the perfect name for the beauty she brings to your life!

  4. Betty

    What a God-send you are to Shadow and visa Versa! I’m so happy to hear you two are able to help one another through life’s trials. There is no doubt that your paths were meant to cross.

    Stay well and happy.


  5. Christine & Doug Williams

    What a wonderful story! Thank you for sharing it! : )

Give with Confidence

candid platinum transparency 2023
candid platinum transparency 2023
candid platinum transparency 2023
candid platinum transparency 2023
Petco Foundation

Shop 1800PetMeds for all of your pet’s health needs and we’ll get 10% of your purchase!

Shop BISSELL for your home cleaning needs and they will donate 10% of your purchase to us!

Because a shelter is not a home

Long-term shelter pets available for adoption