Tragic circumstances brought together a four-legged hurricane refugee and a veteran in need of companionship. Their tale is equal parts fate and faith.
An “unusual enlistment”
Mark joined the Navy in 1996 at the age of 31. He had his associates degree in engineering and a successful career, but dreamed of studying aerospace engineering. He decided that joining the military was the best way to further his education.
“The carrot at the end of the stick was college,” he says.
It was an odd feeling for Mark to be surrounded by so many young recruits when he was at a very different stage of his life.
“I was outranked by people who were 18 to 19 years old,” he laughs.
But the veteran excelled in his duties, perhaps because of his age and maturity.
“I did very, very well.”
Sailor, airman, scholar
During his career in the Navy Mark was deployed to the Persian Gulf during the Gulf War. His tour of duty took him to Australia, the Netherlands, and other parts of Europe as well.
Mark traveled as a sailor and went around the world not once, but twice. After four years in the Navy he joined the Air Force Reserve, and returned to the states. He worked as an Air Force technician and was stationed at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
While in the Reserves Mark earned his bachelor’s degree at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. He was hungry to learn more, however, and earned his masters degree.
Mark is currently pursuing a PhD in physics at the University of South Florida. He is modest when he speaks about his journey through service and higher education, but is proud of the course he chose.
“I’m kind of a late blossom in life with respect to my career,” he says.
Love and loss, then love again
Mark’s success has not gone untested.
“I do suffer from depression,” he shares, “and have an adjustment disorder from the military.”
Mark recently hit a rough spot after the passing of his beloved dog Nicky. She had been in Mark’s life for 11 years, and helped him cope with the loneliness and depression following his divorce.
“When Nicky died, I felt like all the love and companionship she provided got sucked out again,” Mark says. “I kind of felt like I had a void.”
Mark was having trouble getting up in the morning due to anxiety and depression. In time, he decided that he was ready to search for another pal.
“When that kind of considerable loss happened to me,” he told himself, “I have to start thinking about what to do next.”
Mark searched for adoptable dogs on the internet, without success.
“You can’t find your soulmate on the computer,” he muses.
The veteran asked his good friends to accompany him to the Humane Society of Tampa Bay and “make damn sure that I just don’t come back with a dog.” He was afraid of making an impulsive decision.
Since 2011 the Humane Society of Tampa Bay has partnered with Pets for Patriots to place the most overlooked dogs and cats in their care into loving military homes. The shelter waives pet adoption fees for our members, and offers them an ongoing discount at its full-service veterinary clinic.
Mark did not make a rash decision that day, but he did come home with Molly.
“It was one of those things that needed to happen.”
The four-legged hurricane refugee
Molly was an unclaimed Hurricane Irma Rescue who had spent six weeks at the shelter. Many companion pets were lost or abandoned during the storm – including some who were left tied up outdoors to fend for themselves. Molly was one of the lucky ones; she was saved.
Mark had glanced at Molly’s online profile and did not think anything of her at the time. However, once at the shelter his friends singled out the honey-coated Labrador mix. She was “the one,” they told him. He was skeptical at first, but admits that they were right.
“In the end, it worked out beautifully,” he says.
Mark is grateful to the humane society, his friends, family, church, and Pets for Patriots for helping him bring this four-legged hurricane refuge into his world.
“Everyone involved went above the call of duty,” he says, adding that we “weren’t interested in just dumping an animal on me.”
In fact, Mark is thrilled with how everything fell into place. He finds it strange the events aligned so perfectly, especially since Molly did not fit the type of dog he was initially seeking.
“There were so many weird complications that were put into play that brought us together,” he says. “I never thought of myself as a big dog kind of person.”
After bringing home his four-legged hurricane refuge, Mark learned Molly was more advanced in age than originally thought. Despite her young spirit, her microchip revealed she was eight years old. He was disheartened, and worried that he might suffer another loss too soon.
“I was a little taken aback by her age,” he admits. But he was already charmed and decided that her age didn’t matter.
“[I] couldn’t take her back,” he says. “She was already my buddy.”
Molly and me
Molly’s prior life is a mystery, but Mark believes that someone had taken good care of her. She was microchipped, shows signs of having had dental work, and was pleasantly pudgy. She was an “awkward creature” when it came to socializing, however.
“She’s kind of a bit of a misfit in a way,” he says. “She never learned to walk on a leash or play fetch with a ball.”
Despite some initial struggles, Mark is enthusiastic to teach Molly how to be a dog. Now the pair play tug-of-war regularly and take walks in the wooded area near their home. Molly enjoys watching the ducks and other animals she spots on their outings.
“She must be a Florida dog because she likes the sun,” he says.
The routine that came with adopting Molly has brought Mark much needed peace and normalcy.
“By adopting Molly, it brought back a purpose,” he shares. “It got me out of my rut.”
Mark still copes with depression and anxiety, but Molly’s simple, loving gestures have alleviated the burden. Sometimes she pokes her nose under Mark’s arm while he works at the computer, and other times her presence is not so subtle.
“Despite her size, she has no qualms about cuddling into bed with me at night.”
But in any circumstance, Molly’s company is welcome.
“She sticks to me like glue,” he smiles.
Mark’s friends have said that Molly seems to know she is saved. One observed that you can see “gratefulness in Molly’s eyes.”
“She knows her life has changed,” says Mark. “I see that in her, too.”
And while the four-legged hurricane refugee was not exactly what Mark thought he wanted, she is what he needs. Much as Molly has committed to her guardian’s happiness, he has committed to hers.
Of pets and patriots
Mark knows what it is like to save an animal in need and receive that unconditional love in return. He is a strong advocate for companion pet adoption and believes that other veterans could benefit from the same.
“I would say take your time and look at your options. Make sure the feeling is mutual,” he shares. “It’s a lifelong commitment – that’s what I think about regarding adoptions of any type.”
The veteran is keenly aware that not everyone shares his views on animals. Mark believes that some people have a “disposable attitude” that allows them to think little of giving up on their pets.
“[You] have to be damn sure that you are committed to making it work,” he says. “You don’t just return one because it didn’t work out. They are so sensitive, they are so aware.”
Still – like so many pet guardians – Mark regrets that our beloved pets are with us for all too short a time.
“I think it is a very, very tragic thing that G-d doesn’t allow dogs to live as long as we do.”
On faith and friendship
From time to time, Mark reflects on how he came to adopt Molly. It always leave him with a combination of wonder, gratitude, and faith.
“I couldn’t believe that G-d had given me such a wonderful animal,” he says. “I wouldn’t give her up for the world.”
Mark’s parents, who are in their late 80’s, were so moved by Mark’s enthusiasm over the adoption that they drove nearly two hours on Thanksgiving to meet Molly.
“They came over here on Thanksgiving, my dad didn’t want to leave,” he laughs, adding, “They loved her.”
The rarity of his special relationship with Molly is not lost on Mark. He suspects it cannot be a coincidence.
“Someone said along the line, that Mark and Molly are supposed to be together,” he says. “There’s a lot to be said about the spiritual nature of adoption.”
For the past seven years Mark’s church has maintained an annual tradition of asking parishioners to bring their animals to be blessed by the priest.
“It’s a big festival at our church,” he says, “we had a donkey, a snake, dogs, and everybody at our church.”
This year and for as many years as they are together, Mark and Molly will be there.