James has endured a lifetime of heartache over the last decade, including the unthinkable loss of a child. But a spunky Pug who was forsaken by her first family gives him a reason to live, even on the darkest of days.
James of all trades
James hails from a long line of American service members. His great grandfather fought in World War I and his grandfather in World War II. A great uncle served in the Korean War while several uncles fought in Vietnam, where two of them made the ultimate sacrifice.
James was born and raised in East Texas, and dreamed about following in their footsteps.
“I’ve had a lot of family members who served. When I was growing up that’s all I thought about doing,” he recalls.
James worked in the oil fields of West Texas after graduating from high school, but a life of service called to him.
“I still had the longing to join the military. I was going to go in the Marine Corps, but at the time the Army was offering a bonus,” he explains. “So I took them up on that.”
So in 1982 James enlisted in the Army as an infantryman. That was only one of the Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) the soldier would hold during his military career.
“Anytime there was advanced training available or a school opened up, I volunteered to go,” he explains. “That’s how I ended up with three different MOS.”
In time James would serve as an ammunition specialist and Bradley fighting vehicle system turret mechanic. The ability to perform multiple duties took the soldier to places he never expected to see.
Band of brothers
James served in the 18th Airborne Corps, a group of rapid deployment units referred to as America’s Contingency Corps.
“I wound up serving all over the world because I was able to do different jobs,” he says proudly.
Nearly seven of James’ eight years in service were spent overseas. He served in Europe, Asia, Central and South America, and the Middle East.
Traveling to all corners of the globe is a highlight of the Army veteran’s military career. However, remaining ready to deploy anywhere in the world within 24 hours was not always easy.
“Sometimes it could be stressful. There were long hours and there were some sad situations,” James recalls, “but I pulled through all that.”
The Army veteran credits the camaraderie shared with other service members for helping him weather the tough times.
“I know it sounds cliché, but we really were a band of brothers. We watched out for each and had each other’s backs.”
Constantly being overseas meant long stretches of time spent away from the family James was related to by blood.
“I was always deployed somewhere away from my family. I missed a lot of Christmases,” he says. Quick to find the silver lining, he adds, “But I always got nice care packages.”
Ultimately it was his stateside family that led him to separate from service.
Doing the right thing
In 1991, Operation Desert Storm was winding down and James returned home from the Persian Gulf. Around the same time his father became ill.
After several strokes and a heart attack the patriarch was no longer able to tend to the family’s farm. James bore the brunt of the ensuing financial and emotional hardship, and made the difficult choice to leave the Army.
“I put in a 4187 – for early out – to take care of my family,” he says. “It was time for me to go home.”
Like many service members who rejoin the civilian world, James missed the camaraderie that accompanied military life. But he knew he had made the right decision when a year later his mother had a stroke and became disabled.
“Leaving service was like leaving my other family, but I think it was a good move on my part to get out and help at home,” he shares.
While James loved the Army, he never questions his decision to separate from service.
“I went in to serve my country and don’t have any regrets about any of it.”
James took a job as a welder with a company that built floating riverboat casinos. He stayed close to home and helped his parents.
Within a year of returning to Texas, James reunited with his high school sweetheart and got married. A short time later the couple welcomed a baby girl.
The call no parent wants to receive
Nothing brought James more joy in life than watching his daughter Shelby grow up.
“She was smart and beautiful. And everything to her was about music,” he shares. “She loved to sing and play the guitar and piano.”
Shelby graduated from high school and planned to attend college and major in music. She became engaged to her childhood friend, Michael, and had her entire life ahead of her. She was only 19 when tragedy struck.
Shelby and Michael were killed in a car accident in February 2011. In the blink of an eye the veteran’s world was turned upside down. His baby girl was gone.
“I lost both of them. We buried my daughter one day and Michael the next.”
The veteran coped with his daughter’s death the best way he knew how: by showing gratitude for what he had been given instead of focusing on what he had lost.
“I was just so blessed to have the time I did have with her. The time G-d gave me with her was precious.”
The heartache and loss James felt was immense and only compounded when his marriage eventually failed. However in time he met Leigh, his current wife, and they shared a common bond.
Leigh was no stranger to loss. Her mother and first husband passed away within months of each other. And like James, she had experienced the grief that accompanies the loss of one’s child.
Getting by with a little help from a friend
In 2016 the Army veteran was offered a promotion at his company. It required a move to North Carolina, but he was promised a bonus, relocation assistance, and reimbursement for travel expenses.
James and Leigh thought a change of scenery would be good for them. The couple sold their belongings and headed for the East coast. The job was available when the veteran arrived, but none of the other perks were.
“It just didn’t quite work out. Things didn’t fall in place like they were supposed to,” James says. “That’s how it goes sometimes.”
Costly repairs to the couple’s vehicle during the trip ate into the small sum of money they had. James and Leigh were broke and homeless, and without the benefits the company had promised.
“We slept in our car from November to April, during the holidays,” Leigh recalls. “And it was freezing outside.”
The pair’s fortunes, however, were about to change for the better.
Leigh’s friend, Lisa, read about the their ordeal on social media and reached out to help. She invited James and Leigh to stay with her in Tennessee for as long as they needed.
“Lisa is now my very best friend,” Leigh says. “She is the sister I have always looked for.”
James found a job and the couple worked hard to get back on their feet. Leigh even enrolled in classes at a local college – a decision that would help them meet a spunky Pug who would turn out to be their next best friend.
Pugs will be Pugs
One of Leigh’s classes required students to volunteer in the community. Because she has always been an animal lover she signed up to work at a local animal shelter.
Leigh was cleaning kennels at Monroe County Friends of Animals one afternoon when she heard a noise behind her.
“I turned around, and there was a little pug in a pink harness,” she recalls. “She started barking and yipping and crying. She broke right off her leash and came running toward me.”
Leigh desperately wanted to bring the spunky Pug home with her, but she and James were still living with Lisa. They already had six year-old Bella, a black Pug, and did not want to impose by adding a second dog.
Leigh told Lisa and James all about the fawn-colored dog she met at the shelter. Her family abandoned her there because of her excessive shedding and loud breathing – and her intolerable flatulence.
“I’ve had Pugs for 15 years, and that’s all just part of them,” Leigh says matter-of-factly. “That’s what Pugs do.”
Lisa gave the adoption her blessing, but James and Leigh knew there was no way they could afford another dog. Still, they could not get the spirited little dog out of their minds.
Spunky and Spazzy
The following day the couple went to the shelter to inquire about the pup, who was already six years old at the time.
Since 2012 Monroe County Friends of Animals has partnered with Pets for Patriots to place dogs and cats most overlooked by adopters. The shelter waives adoption fees for veterans in our program and gives them a free bag of pet food as well.
James applied and, within days, adopted the spirited dog. Almost immediately she earned herself a nickname.
“We named her Jazzy because she’s a spunky little girl,” he explains. “But sometimes we call her Spazzy Jazzy because she has so much energy.”
It took some time for Jazzy to learn to trust humans; the trauma of abandonment was still fresh in her memory. And despite their different personalities she and Bella became fast friends.
Bella is laid back while Jazzy is more rambunctious, but James admits the pair helps him relax.
“Jazzy and Bella make life better. They are like a natural de-stresser for me,” the Army veteran says. “I can sit for hours and just watch them play.”
Sometimes, though, even man’s best friend cannot make everything better.
The depths of despair
James and Leigh lost nearly everyone they loved over the course of several years.
Together the couple overcame indescribable grief: the loss of their children, divorce, financial ruin, and even homelessness. Life finally seemed to be headed in the right direction.
But when James lost his mother to cancer in 2018 it was almost more than he could bear.
“Everything was just piling up on me. I had lost my mom. My dad. My daughter. My first marriage. I was really down. I’d had enough and felt like there was no place to turn,” he confides.
Leigh was at work during the veteran’s fateful moment of despair. She recalls hearing his late daughter’s voice in her head.
“Shelby told me, ‘Leigh, you need to leave and go find my daddy,'” she recalls vividly to this day. “She even told me where to find him.”
For a few moments Leigh considered that she might be delusional. She dismissed that notion and found James exactly where Shelby told her she would.
The Army veteran had a loaded pistol in his mouth.
It will never be known whether Leigh was inspired to action by divine intervention, woman’s intuition, or something else altogether. But whatever prompted Leigh to action that day saved her husband’s life.
“Leigh came to me,” James says, “and she’s been keeping me going strong ever since.”
The four-legged ladies in the Army veteran’s life do their part to check up on him, too. Especially Jazzy, James’ spunky Pug and wild child.
“There are still days when I feel down, but Jazzy jumps in my lap and licks me on the jaw or on my hand. She knows when something isn’t right with me.”
Spunky Pug helps James take life “one day at a time”
The past year has been rough for James. He was out of work with a broken leg. His plant closed during the COVID-19 lockdown. While it reopened eventually, the Army veteran was laid off a short while later. Then he contracted COVID-19 and spent several weeks in the intensive care unit.
“Everyone goes through problems. Some go through more than others. It’s just the way life is,” James admits. “All you can do is take it one day at a time.”
The Army veteran credits his routines with Jazzy and Bella for helping him get through each day. He encourages other veterans to consider pet adoption.
“You have to take care of a pet and that helps take your mind off other things.”
James is quick to add that it is important to do research and make sure a companion dog or cat is a good fit.
“It’s like adding another member to the family. You can just love on them. They’re a big part of your life, and they can really help you on your down days,” he says. “You have to spend some time with the animal and learn about it. Find out what’s in your heart and what’s in their little heart. See how they respond to you and how you respond to them.”
Leigh witnessed firsthand the healing power of companion pets on her husband’s demeanor. She is grateful for what she describes as “happiest, sweetest, most loving, most obnoxious dog you’ll ever know.”
“It wasn’t us who saved Jazzy’s life. She saved ours. She gave James a reason to live. She gave him a reason to live,” she repeated through tears. “You guys helped save his life, you really did.”