An Air Force veteran who served during Vietnam continues his legacy of service, with a twist. He saved a forsaken shelter dog who bore an uncanny resemblance to a beloved lost pet.
Avoiding the draft by choosing to serve
Thinking back, Richard is glad he chose to serve. Like other young men growing up during the Vietnam War he worried about what would happen if he was drafted. Even though he and his family lived in rural Virginia – 16 miles from the nearest town – they stayed up-to-date on the war.
Yet geographic isolation could not relieve Richard from the pressures of the war, nor the mixture of anticipation and dread about whether or when he would be drafted. So in 1967 he chose to free himself from all the uncertainty and enlisted in the Air Force.
“Something had to be done,” he says, “either that or they draft you.”
Richard’s mother was particularly nervous about her son’s decision; his father was a WWII veteran who had spent six months in a German Prisoner of War camp.
“We knew what the risks were, and that’s one of the reasons I joined,” he says.
Fortunately the family’s fears were never realized; Richard was not sent to Vietnam. For that, he considers himself lucky.
“I knew the alternative,” he says, “so I kept my mouth shut.”
Richard worked as an administrative clerk at Chanute Air Force Base for his entire Air Force career. Many years later, in 1998, the base was shuttered.
“I was probably the only clerk in a 600-man squadron for about three years,” he says.
As part of his duties Richard processed incoming students and helped train the young men that passed through. In 1971 he separated from service with the rank of Sergeant. The Air Force veteran decided to stay in Illinois, where job prospects were much better than back home in rural Appalachia. He had a job waiting for him at a dairy facility, was married, and ready to settle down with his family.
Photograph of a “miserable little dog”
Fast forward a few decades and Richard still lives in Illinois. He is now retired, remarried, enjoying his grandchildren, and embracing life with a mostly empty nest.
“I really enjoy being a grandpa,” he says, “it’s a thrill.”
Despite the joys of being a grandparent, Richard and his wife, Georgia, were devastated by the death of their previous dog. They had not yet considered pet adoption until Richard’s stepdaughter showed them a picture of a small, forsaken shelter dog at the Macon County Animal Control & Care Center.
Benji’s resemblance to the couple’s previous dog was uncanny. It inspired the Air Force veteran to go to the shelter to meet him, but it was the dog’s vulnerable state that made Richard determined to save him.
“We always took in what someone else didn’t want,” Richard says.
Fortunately for Benji, Richard and Georgia looked beyond recalls Benji’s patchy fur and the many sores that covered his small frame.
“He was the only little dog in there with all the big dogs,” he emphasizes, adding, “he was a miserable little dog.”
Benji’s adoption was almost a done deal until the staff at Macon County Animal Care & Control told Richard that the little dog was eligible for benefits through Pets for Patriots. As an added bonus, the shelter waives pet adoption fees for veterans in our program.
“I was just going to pay the adoption fee and take him,” Richard says. “We were somewhat shocked. We were going to take him regardless.”
From forsaken shelter dog to beloved family member
Benji will never have to worry about being unwanted again.
The Lhasa Apso seems to be taking on the playful role typically filled by children. He may be a little too good at assuming that role, since Richard and his wife have had to pet-proof the house to keep Benji “honest.”
“Actually he’s a pretty good boy,” the Air Force veteran says, “you just have to make him behave. For the most part he listens pretty good. He still has a little bit of a hard-head in him.”
Richard and Georgia consider Benji an unexpected blessing, even with his stubborn nature.
“I wouldn’t trade anything for him,” he says.
What’s in a nickname
By learning Benji’s nicknames you can tell he is adored. Most of the time he is simply Ben, but sometimes he is Ben-Ben. Other days Richard will call him Junior. The once forsaken shelter dog’s affection for his veteran has earned him another moniker from Georgia, albeit an unflattering one.
“My wife calls Benji a ‘traitor’ because Benji was supposed to be hers, but it turns out he’s a daddy’s boy,” Richard laughs.
In fact, one of the little pup’s favorite pastimes is going in the car. Yet instead of the typical face-out-the-window joyride, Benji has another routine. He will not leave home without one of his many toys, and once in the car curls up on Richard’s lap – with his toy – and takes a nap.
This is just one of many quirks that make the once forsaken shelter dog so lovable. Even the cat adores him.
“Him and the cat are best buddies,” Richard says, with a smile in his voice.
Despite Benji’s physical resemblance to the dog Richard and his wife lost, the Air Force veteran insists “that’s where it ends.” The personalities of the two dogs could not be more different. Benji is spirited, headstrong, and playful. In short, Richard and Georgia have their hands full.
“He can be a little lover boy,” Richard jokes, “but he’s a little con-artist too.”
The couple’s new normal includes keeping chairs and tables away from the kitchen counter, and minimizing counter treats that might tempt Benji to take a leap of gustatory faith. But to Richard and Georgia these adjustments are trivial when they consider how much they cherish having Benji in their lives.
“He’s an awfully good little boy,” he says, “we are glad we got him.”
“We took a chance”
It is important to understand that Benji’s life has not always been about car rides, cuddles, treats, and belly rubs. Richard vividly recalls the shelter dog’s weak physical state and sad spirit when they first met.
“He wasn’t much to look at.”
Benji’s pre-adoption days offer a glimpse into the current lives of millions of shelter animals across the country. Animals who find themselves homeless through no fault of their own. But his story reminds us that there is hope to change their fate. All it takes is a leap of faith.
“We took a chance on him,” Richard says.
The Vietnam veteran urges others to open their hearts to a shelter animal in need. By sharing his story he hopes that other veterans will realize how a companion pet can change their lives for the better.
“They make your life that much more enjoyable,” he says. “You can grow with them, and some of these guys need someone to grow with.”
Richard appreciates Pets for Patriots for working to make these adoptions possible for veterans.
“It’s a great gift, it’s a great opportunity to take a pet out of the shelter,” Richard says. “I didn’t realize there was [Pets for Patriots], but I do appreciate the gift – of him, and the gifts for him.”
Richard saved the life of one of the most vulnerable among us. Whether you are civilian or veteran, he asks that you head to your local shelter and “just go look.” There you may find a forsaken shelter dog or cat of your own, waiting to change your life.