Cynthia knows a few things about being an underdog. For nearly her entire life she battled seemingly unsurmountable forces against her. Many years later she found love and acceptance with a rescue pup who, like her, was always underestimated.
Charting a new course
As the youngest of four kids, Cynthia always felt like the black sheep of the family. Both of her parents were college graduates, as were all of her siblings.
“My father said, ‘Either go to college or go to the military,'” she shares. “I knew I needed more discipline. I didn’t want to burden my family. My dad had been in the Army and then worked for the department of the Army, so he was proud of me.”
Cynthia jokes that she chose the Navy because she feared being forced to jump out of a plane, but always felt comfortable in water. She recalls the excitement of striking out on her own, doing something no one in the family had ever done before. Cynthia’s mother, unfortunately, was disappointed in her.
“I was always the underdog in my family,” Cynthia confides. “But my dad had a way with underdogs.”
In 1982 Cynthia enlisted in the Navy and graduated from high school the following year, at which time she went active. She served her country for more than 21 years before retiring with a 100 percent medical discharge.
Life as an underdog
Cynthia still has painful memories of her childhood and adolescence that haunt her to this day.
“I’m black and dark-skinned. In society there is a lot of racism. I went through it and still go through it,” she says. “Fifty-five years of racism, even in my own family, for being dark-skinned.”
The Navy veteran’s pain is compounded by the fact that much of it came from her own family. The very people who should have protected her did not.
“Society thinks light-skinned is better. I was always beat[en] up, treated like dirt for being dark-skinned. My siblings and my mother were light. My dad was light, but his side of the family was dark,” she shares. “Even my own cousins beat me up. My parents told me not to fight back. I had to endure all this.”
Cynthia endured even more profound trauma. She had been sexually abused by a family member for many years.
“That’s why I decided to go to the military,” she says. “I had to get away from the nightmare I was living.”
A life of adventure
Cynthia started her Navy career as quartermaster. These professionals are responsible for a range of navigation, ship control, and bridge watch duties, among other vital tasks. In time, she moved her way up to supply clerk.
The young veteran loved meeting people and traveling the world. Cynthia’s Navy career took her to Puerto Rico, Cuba, Virginia, Mississippi, Florida, and Philadelphia – to name a few. She is especially proud of the time she spent on assignment at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
However, life in the military is often life on the move. And over the course of Cynthia’s long career she grew accustomed to not staying in any one place for too long.
“I moved 50 times in 20 years,” she says. “I never really unpacked. I was always going, going, going.”
Still, Cynthia’s proudest memory of her Navy service was when she was on recruiting duty.
“It was the most fulfilling thing to help others change their lives for the better,” she explains.
Cynthia logged time on the seas as well; she was no stranger to the decks. This included an assignment on the USS Emory S. Land, a submarine tender. At the time women were allowed only on submarine tenders or destroyer tenders. These ships provided maintenance and logistical support for nuclear attack submarines.
“We had about 70 percent female[s] on board. That took some getting used to,” she says, adding, “I was used to serving with males.”
Cynthia served in logistics for years and in time decided to make an exciting career transition. She was selected to train at the military police academy in Puerto Rico. The new career opportunity brought with it other challenges as well.
“I was one of only three females chosen,” she says. “It was hard, especially in the Navy, being female, black, and a single mother. It was like having three strikes against me.”
Those struggles Cynthia felt as the underdog of her family surfaced during her career in the Navy.
Cynthia suppressed those negative voices as best she could. She often remembered how her father had a soft spot for underdogs and always sought to give them encouragement. Thinking of her father and how proud he was helped her through those rough times.
Life in the Navy had its moments of turbulence, but a tour in Cuba proved to be devastating for Cynthia. She suddenly felt an unfamiliar pain and made an appointment to see a gynecologist.
The doctor performed a routine examination and told her that everything was fine.
Cynthia started hemorrhaging one month later. Further tests revealed she had fibroid tumors and a hysterectomy was scheduled. A new doctor took over her case, but botched the surgery. Cynthia suffered permanent damage to her bowels and bladder, and almost died on the operating table.
The Navy veteran returned stateside and was examined by another physician who was horrified to discover that the hysterectomy had been unnecessary. By this time Cynthia was bedridden and in constant pain. The damage to her organs was permanent.
“I’m still in pain,” she confides. “On any given day my pain level is a ten.”
The debilitating pain took a toll on Cynthia’s mental health as well.
The Navy gave Cynthia a medical discharge once it became clear that she would never recover from the botched surgery. They accepted full responsibility for her disability, which they rated at 100 percent.
Cynthia was proud to serve her country for more than 21 years before she was medically retired.
“I was just looking for a lovable dog”
After separating from the Navy Cynthia moved to Owings Mills, Maryland, near where she grew up. An emotional support dog named Chaz helped her manage the pain and depression caused by her disability.
Chaz was Cynthia’s faithful canine companion for more than 13 years, but in 2018 he became very ill and passed away.
Although the Navy veteran mourned his loss, she believes that the unconditional love of a companion pet is often the best medicine. So in time she set about finding another small dog to comfort her.
Cynthia called many area shelters, but small dogs were in high demand. Every time she rushed to the shelter to meet one she was always too late.
“I had to race to get there and compete with other people,” she explains. “When you suffer emotional and mental problems, that wears on you. It’s frustrating.”
One day the Baltimore Humane Society called Cynthia and asked her if she would be willing to take any dog that needs a home. She agreed.
“I was just looking for a lovable dog – an underdog,” she says. “You find that underdogs give the most love.”
Penny for your thoughts
Cynthia was invited to come to the shelter to meet a special dog named Golden Grahams who had nearly run out of opportunities to be adopted.
The tiny dog was rescued from a hoarding situation where he was one of 19 dogs. He was never given love, affection, or training of any kind. Golden Grahams was nearly four years old at the time and still not house trained. He had separation anxiety and dental problems, to boot.
While this horribly neglected dog’s fortunes improved once he was rescued by Baltimore Humane Society, he struggled to find a permanent, loving home. He had been adopted and returned by three different people; each kept him for less than a month.
“They weren’t willing to take the time to train him,” Cynthia says.
The Navy veteran asked her granddaughter, Layla, to come with her to the shelter to meet Golden Grahams. Layla took one look at him and said that he looked like a copper penny, so they changed his name to Copper.
“I had played and spent time with other dogs, but when I met Copper and looked into his eyes, I just knew,” Cynthia says. “I’m religious, and I had to pray about it. I asked G-d: If this is the one for me, let me know. I’d been so disappointed before that, but this one really came across as a feeling. I just knew. He was my Mr. Right.”
A port in the storm
In 2015 – three years years prior – Cynthia received some devastating news. The Navy informed her that her disability benefit had been recalculated and that she would have to return $130,000 – immediately. Her stress level became unimaginable.
Cynthia sold her car and various other possessions, but she still could not come close to paying the requested sum. With the help of her brother – a financial analyst – she got the Navy to review and reverse their decision. Still, they reduced Cynthia’s monthly benefit by over $1,000. This was substantial, especially since she helps support her daughter, granddaughter, and elderly mother.
Although money remains tight, Cynthia was determined to adopt Copper. Adopting this underdog was a need – not a luxury. When she mentioned to the shelter staff that she was a veteran they told her about Pets for Patriots.
“They will help you with adopting and getting things for your dog. I was so thankful. I got on my knees and prayed!” she exclaims. “I told everyone I could! Pets for Patriots makes such a big difference.”
Copper – like Cynthia – was an underdog.
The tiny dog was not nurtured as a puppy and had behavioral problems resulting from his long confinement.
Cynthia had adopted only puppies in her life and at the time Copper was already an adult dog. Still, Cynthia was confident that her own experiences as an underdog could help this four-legged one as well.
“People don’t want older dogs,” she says. “I wanted to make sure he was the right one. I don’t believe in handing them back. It’s supposed to be a forever home. Every animal isn’t meant to be with every person. You have to take the time to meet him. An animal is like a child. You don’t hand them back when you no longer want them.”
So in late October, 2018, Cynthia and Copper became family. The Navy veteran believes her father would appreciate her adopting the tiny pup.
“My father gave the underdogs extra love and care,” she says. “He was a good man. I miss him so much.”
And despite their differences over the years, Cynthia and her mother are making amends. The two are becoming close again and appreciating the bonds that only come with being family.
“I can feel their pain”
Copper had an immediate and positive impact on Cynthia’s emotional and physical health. Nurturing this abused dog became a form of therapy for her. So much so that at times she feels guilty when she goes to the doctor, or to church.
“When I leave and come back, he’s jumping on me, so happy, I pick up like a baby and rock him, assure him,” Cynthia shares. “Then he calms down.”
But about a year after their adoption the Navy veteran had to endure yet another challenge. She needed knee replacement surgery and had to kennel Copper while she recovered.
“Then Pets for Patriots came through for me again.”
Pets for Patriots sent Cynthia a pet gift card to help with Copper’s care. This contribution from our hardship program helped the Navy veteran to buy pet food and other essentials once she brought her pup back home.
Life with Copper has helped Cynthia appreciate the simple joys in life once again. He loves being a lap dog, and enjoys to both give and receive affection. While the little dog cannot erase all of the hurt Cynthia has endured, he does ease her pain.
And the Navy veteran repays his love many times over. She had his teeth fixed and works diligently on his house training. But most of all she accepts him – as he does her – and loves him without boundary.
Cynthia believes that a higher power was at work in bringing these two underdogs together.
“All these traumas my whole life just broke me down,” she confides. “G-d put these dogs in my life to help soak up all these traumas.”
The Navy veteran feels a special connection with the downtrodden, like Copper, who did not receive the love they deserved.
“I can feel their pain,” she says. “I lived through their pain as a human. Imagine an animal going through that. They can’t even tell you.”
Both person and pet are works in progress. Each helps the other get through the day and makes life a little brighter. Cynthia does not regret for one moment adopting a dog who was cast aside by so many others.
“I had so many physical and mental troubles, I understood these dogs,” she shares. “It took a lot of work with Copper, but he is doing better. He is a beautiful, lovable dog.”
In so many ways Copper’s life is a reflection of Cynthia’s own experiences. Abuse. Rejection. Pain. Yet at the same time they are both flourishing with the second chance they have been given. It seems they were destined to find one another.
“He’s smaller, so I can really cuddle him like a baby. He gives me kisses. He is adorable,” she says. “I had a hard time in life and trusting people and getting along with people. They always found a reason not to like me, and I can relate to him. I know what he needs.”