It was early 2013 and Otis was a stray dog in need of hope and a home. He found both when he chose a wounded Marine veteran as his savior.
The blast that rocked a Devil Doc’s world
Nate is medically retired from the Marine Corps, where he served as a Fleet Marine Force (FMF) Corpsman.
These corpsmen – known as Devil Docs – provide a range of lifesaving care to Navy and Marine personnel. They are trained in emergency medicine, serve as operating room technicians, and administer a variety of preventative, surgical, and emergency care.
During Nate’s tour of duty he deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan – where a roadside Improvised Explosive Device (IED) would change his life forever.
It was late 2010 when Nate was on foot patrol and an IED exploded in front of him; he suffered a fractured spine, shrapnel wounds, and other serious injuries. Somehow, the young Marine regained consciousness and treated fellow Marines who were injured in the explosion as well.
Despite his own debilitating injuries Nate remained in Afghanistan through March 2011. He returned stateside where he underwent a series of surgeries and was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
While Nate has many memories from his years in combat, it is the bonds with his fellow service members that are the most enduring memory of all. He is resolute about what he misses most from his military career.
“The camaraderie with my Marines.”
“Then Otis adopted me”
Like many wounded warriors, Nate thought that a service dog would help him cope with the various physical and emotional injuries of combat.
But the vast majority of veterans neither need nor qualify for a service animal. And it typically takes an average of 18 months to require a legitimate, trained service animal from a reputable organization.
So Nate decided to visit his local animal shelter to see if there was a dog who could help him. He visited Carteret Humane Society, which joined our free shelter program in 2011. The organization offers deeply reduced adoption fees to veterans in our program who adopt eligible dogs and cats.
It was at the shelter that Nate met a former stray dog named Otis. The large Labrador Retriever mix has a creamy white coat with large caramel-colored patches, as well as one blue eye and one brown.
The Marine veteran decided to take Otis for a walk, which effectively ended when Otis hopped into Nate’s car. It was as though the big, gentle dog made Nate’s decision for him.
Luckily, Nate was prepared to bring Otis home that very same day.
“[I] grew up having dogs. Bought a house with a fenced-in yard with the hopes of getting one,” he says. “Then Otis adopted me.”
The stray dog and the Marine
Life has not been the same for man or beast since their adoption in 2013.
“He’s changed my life,” the veteran says. “He instinctively knows when I need help, keeps me from falling. He’s a service dog, but was never trained as a service dog.”
Fortunately, Otis has the physical stature and temperament to help Nate with his balance and mobility. When possible he accompanies the Marine on his many adaptive sports adventures, a pastime that has grown into a passion.
“[I’m] still living in North Carolina, involved with adaptive sports, and spreading the word to help others [stay] active,” he says.
Through it all, the once stray dog is Nate’s guiding light. He is a constant companion, except for occasional hospitalizations when Nate undergoes additional surgeries and treatments. Most of all, Otis gives his wounded warrior the ability to embrace his life with as few limitations as possible.
“Otis is being a huge help being my cane, reigning me in, and being his gentle giant self,” he says. “Won’t let me out of his sight and making sure I don’t fall. And of course cuddling right up on me.”
Four-legged “partner in crime”
Despite the many positive changes in his post-military life, Nate still struggles with PTSD. Otis – ever watchful – can sense his savior’s distress.
The Marine veteran has woken up in the middle of the night following a bad dream to find Otis – all 70 pounds of him – lying across his chest. And on tougher days, Otis tries extra hard to make Nate play with him and ease his mind.
“Having a pet is really having another member of the family and fills the house with love,” Nate explains. “[I] can be having the worst day ever and somehow they make it all better. For me, it’s just me and Otis – so definitely great to have a partner in crime.”
Still, when Otis is not on point looking after Nate he is content to be like any other dog. He loves his duck and fish toys. And he enjoys chasing a ball in the yard, tearing up the grass in the process.
For Nate, a grassy yard is a small sacrifice for his once stray dog to be content. He may never know what it was about him that inspired Otis to choose him that fateful day in the shelter. But he is grateful beyond measure.
“Otis adopted me and has been great,” he says. “He will brace me when I need it, goes crazy when I come home, just completely helps to make me happy. Can’t imagine life without him.”
But perhaps the Marine Corps veteran sums it up best when he thinks of the one word that best describes his best friend.
“He’s just awesomeness.”