Jody is a Vietnam veteran who has had no shortage of challenges in his life. He has dealt with addiction, loss, homelessness, and mental health struggles. But when he crossed paths with an orange and white shelter cat with a motor-like purr, it was love at first sight.
Adding Tembo to the family has helped Jody relax and enjoy the positive life he has worked so hard to achieve.
On a wayward path
Jody grew up in Brazil, Indiana – a small town 60 miles southwest of Indianapolis and one of the poorest in the state. He was a victim of sexual abuse at two points during his childhood, and started down a path of destructive behavior before he even became a teenager.
“I had gotten into my addictions when I was 12 years old. They lasted until I was 49,” the now-sober veteran shares.
A run-in with police in 1972 forced Jody to consider leaving his hometown.
“I told my mom, ‘You know, if I’m going to get shot at in my hometown, I might as well go to Vietnam and get paid for it.’”
On January 17, 1973, Jody enlisted in the Army as an infantryman. He was looking for a new path in life and was first stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington. The young soldier’s stay on the West coast was brief, however. He was sent to Vietnam in 1974 and worked as a Pathfinder.
The young man who was looking to change the direction of his own life became a trailblazer for others. His role was to navigate the foreign terrain and establish safe landing zones for helicopters and drop zones for airborne operations. In 2017, the Army deactivated the last Pathfinder company.
“We were the first in and the last out,” he says with muted pride. “It was a little rough.”
After his deployment to Vietnam Jody was transferred to Europe. Thousands of miles away in the United States, Jody’s wife had given birth to a baby boy. The elation was short-lived, however, as the couple’s son passed away six days later. The heartbreak was too much for Jody to bear.
While still stationed at Coleman Barracks in Mannheim, Germany, Jody was divorced from his wife. The experience, together with the death of their son, obliterated the path he had taken.
“I wanted to make a career of the military, but I couldn’t get over the death of my son,” he says.
Jody turned back to his addictions and “wanted out” of the Army. He understood that he could not just give up and walk away from the commitment he made. He continued to serve until his honorable discharge in June 1976.
Life did not get any easier after leaving the Army. The veteran moved back to Indiana and lived with his parents for a while. He got into construction work, but jobs would only last a few years before he “messed up” and had to move on.
“I pretty much floated from job to job,” he recalls, “and I’m finding out now that was because of major depressive disorder, anxiety, and PTSD.”
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a serious mental health issue that afflicts an estimated 31 percent of Vietnam veterans.
Light at the end of the tunnel
Jody credits a Damascus Road experience in 2003 with helping him get clean and sober. In more familiar terms, the veteran “saw the light” and discontinued his addictive behaviors. And for the past nine years Jody has been a minister. He draws upon his experiences to help others.
Life seemed to be moving in the right direction, but Jody would have one more obstacle to hurdle before his path smoothed out for good. In 2010, “a myriad of issues surfaced,” and the Vietnam veteran was admitted to the Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center in Indianapolis for suicidal ideation.
“I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, anxiety and PTSD, and I spent 19 days in the acute mental health ward,” he remembers. “They got my medications together, and I got out.”
Through the highs and lows of his adult life, Jody stayed in touch with his grade school sweetheart, Teresa. She was living in Minnesota at the time of the veteran’s hospitalization and, like Jody, was going through a divorce. Jody reached out to her and bared his soul.
“I called her one day and I said, ‘I just wanted to call you and tell you I’ve loved you since we were kids,'” he shares, adding, “and the rest is history.”
Teresa insisted on coming to Indiana to take care of her long-time friend. She packed up her belongings and got an apartment in Indianapolis.
Everything is coming up roses
2013 was a big year for the clean, sober, and mentally healthy veteran.
In what seems like a page out of a timeless love story, Jody and Teresa married and started the next chapter of their lives together.
“We got a couple vehicles, we bought a house, and she’s been an awesome part of my life. It’s not been easy but she’s been a trooper putting up with me,” he says.
Jody began volunteering at the VA hospital where he had been a patient only a couple of years earlier. He eventually accepted a permanent position with the Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program.
The once homeless Vietnam veteran was enjoying the ability to use his life experiences to help other veterans find and sustain permanent housing.
All of the pieces of a happy life were falling into place for Jody, but he still felt like something was missing.
Motoring along with a new four-legged friend
“I was joking around with Teresa one day,” Jody says with a laugh, “and I told her there was too much estrogen in the house, and I need some backup on the testosterone.”
Another veteran told Jody about Pets for Patriots, prompting the couple to visit the Humane Society of Indianapolis. It was June 2013 and Jody was searching for a male cat to be his companion. The shelter has been a partner since 2010 and offers a 35 percent discount on adoption fees for veterans in our program who adopt eligible pets.
“We walked in and looked around. He was sitting up on a [kitty tower] by himself like he was the king of the place. His motor attracted us most,” Jody recalls of the moment he first met Tembo. “His purr sounds like a car turning a corner with low power steering fluid. We fell in love with that, and it’s very relaxing for me.”
Details of Tembo’s life before the shelter are scant, but that did not deter Jody from falling in love with the orange and white cat who was roughly six years old at the time.
“We figured if he was there, he was a castaway, and we’ve got a whole oddball family of castaways. We figured he’d fit right in,” Jody laughs.
The Army veteran raves about the discounted adoption fee and the pet supply gift card he receives every year as part of an anniversary program for veterans who adopted prior to 2013.
More than that, though, he loves that he and Tembo share a bond based on past experiences.
“He was not perfect. Like me, he was broken,” Jody admits. “He was a little standoffish at first, like me, but when he started loving, he just loves all over you.”
Vietnam veteran pays it forward
Tembo takes his time adjusting to new situations. He hid in the cabinet under the kitchen sink for the first few days after being adopted. When Jody and Teresa moved into their new house, he found that safe space again until he felt comfortable with his surroundings.
“He was just frightened,” the Vietnam veteran says, “and we just left the door open for him.”
Jody enjoys opening doors for fellow veterans as well. He is the founder and director of Gateway Home, a recovery and resource program for veterans, service members, and their families. And the Army veteran continues his invaluable work as a veteran peer mentor with an organization that helps homeless veterans obtain permanent housing and connect them with needed resources.
“One of the best tools that a peer support specialist has is to tell the story,” he says, “tell where I’ve been and where I’m at now and show other veterans that it can be done.”
Jody has plenty to be proud of; he recently celebrated 15 years of sobriety.
And the once homeless Vietnam veteran loves to tell Tembo’s story, too. He spreads the word about our organization and how we helped bring the shelter cat into his life.
“Speaking as a veteran, the program is great for veterans,” Jody says. “Some of us come back broken, and we know it and feel like castaways. We actually feel like we’ve been put in a humane shelter, just tossed aside, and to rescue someone else is just wonderful.”
If you are or if you know a veteran in crisis, contact the Veterans Crisis Line 24/7/365 for confidential help.