For a Navy veteran and shelter dog it was the darker moments in their lives that drew them together; each had her own history of trauma and abuse. Yet together both are discovering love, healing and second chances.
Nurturing ambition and adventure
At the age of 21 Gail was already a licensed x-ray technician. In search of something more, her adventurous spirit led her to pursue joining the service.
“I was just curious. I was getting started on my own,” she says.
Once Gail shared her interest with Army and Navy recruiters, both camps did their best to gain her favor. The Army promised her an initial rank of E5, but she decided to enlist in the Navy, which enlisted her as an E3.
It was not until many years later that Gail realized the significance of her role in the Navy.
“I was one of five women in the entire US Navy who were x-ray technicians,” she beams.
At the time Gail was not too impressed by that fact, but reflecting on it now makes her proud.
Leading with grace
Gail’s leadership skills were recognized, not long after starting boot camp at Bainbridge, Maryland. She was named the Recruit Chief Petty Officer (RCPO) of her boot camp company and was suddenly responsible for a total of 70 recruits. Gail assumed her new role as a mentor with ease and grace.
“I had to mother some of the girls in my command,” she recalls.
Gail had wonderful examples of mothering in her own life, having grown up in Philadelphia with one sister 18 years her senior.
“It was almost like I had two moms,” she recalls, adding, “It was a good grow-up.”
The newly minted Chief Petty Officer helped the young women deal with their homesickness, the rigors of life as a recruit, and simple everyday challenges. She even fondly remembers teaching one of them how to use a broom. Despite some trivial tasks, Gail loved every opportunity to interact and connect with a diverse group of women from all around the country.
An unexpected tragedy
Gail was required to complete training at the Naval Hospital Corps School in Great Lakes, Illinois, even though she was already an exceptionally trained and registered x-ray technician. While there she married. After completing her training she was sent back to her hometown of Philadelphia on a humanitarian assignment.
Thereafter, Gail was placed at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital. Months after starting work there she experienced “a horrible incident” of Military Sexual Trauma (MST).
This tragedy, combined with lack of support at home and other familial stresses, left Gail alone to manage the mental, emotional and physical trauma she had been forced to endure. At the time her husband “didn’t know how to deal with it.” The pair has only recently been able to speak of it again.
“Today it’s still difficult,” she says, “I have left over trauma, grief, anxiety as a result of it.”
Gail was subsequently transferred to Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, where she would serve until honorably discharged in October of 1974 – just 16 days before her first son was born.
Moving forward by coping with the past
Gail always loved her chosen vocation and continued to work as an x-ray technician until retiring in 2012. But the pain from the trauma remained in her life, despite the joys she received from her job and caring for her daughter and two sons.
After attending a seminar for victims of military sexual assault the Naval officer was faced with reliving her trauma. She became emotionally and physically overwhelmed.
“I was anxious,” she says, “sinking into depression.”
Gail’s sister died soon thereafter, only compounding her trauma. Something had to give.
It was then that Gail realized she needed to investigate resources to help cope with the past. Even with her needs she was not eligible for a service animal through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). But she happened to come across a VA pamphlet that identified Pets for Patriots as a resource for companion pet adoption.
Hero close to home and heart
Gail soon discovered that hope was not far away; it was along her everyday driving route. With encouragement from her daughter she visited the Pets for Patriots partner shelter near her home to search for a new best friend.
On her first visit to the Michigan Humane Society Detroit Gail was initially drawn to a Pit Bull named Vera. Despite the dog’s gentle nature, Gail was worried that the stigma surrounding bully breeds would prevent Vera from being accepted into her social life.
“Pit Bulls have such a bad reputation,” she says, adding, “and they’re gorgeous.”
The shelter later called Gail to come back and meet two Boxers they thought would interest her. After only an hour with a then six year-old Boxer named Betsy, she signed the adoption paperwork and brought her home.
The Navy veteran affectionately remembers her first interaction with Betsy.
“She was sweet, and she was sniffing me.”
Betsy was so sweet, in fact, that Gail and her daughter decided they had to change her name – to Sweetie.
“She’s very sensitive,” Gail says. “I love that about her.”
Given her own painful history, Sweetie’s tenderness is nothing short of courageous. She was acquired by the humane society as a cruelty case, and while Gail does not know exactly what happened to her – “I think a lot of scary stuff went on” – she can see that Sweetie has been affected by abuse.
Although Sweetie is still easily startled, she has grown to understand that she is safe with Gail. Normal household activities that used to frighten her – like the sound of the microwave oven – have been replaced by acceptance. She now knows that food comes out of the microwave and that it is a good thing.
Learning and loving
Both the Navy veteran and shelter dog are taking steps to heal from their traumatic pasts. The most significant stride for them has been learning that they are safe with each other.
Life at home has been much better for Gail and her daughter as well now that Sweetie is there to offer comfort, wet kisses, and a playful atmosphere. But it is the everyday realities and routines of companion pet guardianship that have made all the difference.
“The actual taking care of her has been therapeutic,” says Gail.
The veteran and her family are still learning new things about their beloved Sweetie since their fateful adoption in April of 2016.
“I’m so amazed, every week there is something new that we discover that is wonderful about this dog.”
Perhaps what Gail loves most, however, is Sweetie’s devotion to her – “she doesn’t want to be away from me” – which the Navy veteran returns in kind.
With all of the wonderful things about this once-abused shelter dog it seems only fair that Sweetie has a vice, albeit a relatively harmless one: she is crazy about Doritos. The snack is one of only a handful of treats that inspires her to beg and bark.
The big dog’s otherwise mellow nature is complemented with high-energy spurts of playfulness. Gail says that she is a fantastic runner and fetcher, even though she tires after only a few minutes.
“She’s playful, but she’s gentle,” she adds. “We play in the yard, we play in the house…and she walks around the house with a toy.”
During one of their play sessions Gail jammed her finger and Sweetie immediately hurried over to check on her. The Navy veteran treasures these simple, but tender moments; they have made all the difference in brightening her life.
Gail and Sweetie are not the only beneficiaries of this adoption. Gail’s daughter is bi-polar and the once-abused shelter dog has brought a welcome calm into the home.
“We get along better in the house since Sweetie has been here,” she says. “This is the most awesome dog. She’s emotionally supportive because of her awesomeness; I’m proud of her.”
The Navy veteran and shelter dog
Having experienced the profound love and support of a rescued pet, Gail now encourages everyone to seek – and accept – those same things in their own lives.
“I think that’s what everyone needs – someone to love you like you love them. Because I don’t have that kind of love from another human that I love back in return.”
Gail’s four-legged therapist does not come without cost, however. Initially she was worried that she would not be able to afford to care for Sweetie. However she was relieved to learn that we not only help veterans adopt a companion pet, but provide support to ensure that the adoption is financially sustainable.
“She’s a need, and you support me needing her and her needing me,” says Gail, “it touches a deeper place to know that [Pets for Patriots] will help me.”
The Navy veteran appreciates all of the contact from our organization – emails, phone calls, follow ups, noting that we are equally interested in the welfare of person and pet alike.
“I had no idea that we would be supported like this,” she says, adding, “Sweetie was something I needed to do for me.”
Gail urges other veterans, especially those dealing with trauma, to be honest about their needs and consider companion pet adoption as a means to heal. Opening her heart and mind to adoption is something for which she will always be thankful.
“I’m glad I made that space in my life,” she says. “Let them rescue you, let you rescue them, and let Pets for Patriots help you do it.”