Bill is a Vietnam veteran and former military working dog handler who recently lost his wife of more than five decades.
The silence in Bill’s house was deafening until he adopted a German Shepherd who reminds him of a working dog he was forced to leave behind in Vietnam.
Return to sender
In November of 1963 millions of Americans were reeling from the news of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Around the same time, Bill was a 21 year-old from Rhode Island who just received unsettling news of his own.
“I got my draft notice in the mail, but I didn’t open it. I didn’t want to sleep in a tent and carry a gun for two years,” he admits.
Bill wanted more control over his military future, so he enlisted in the Air Force in December of 1963. This allowed him to choose an occupational specialty instead of being assigned one.
The newly minted airman selected security forces, where his role was to protect and defend air bases around the globe. In this role Bill trained as a military working dog (MWD) handler where he did his job with a loyal canine partner at his side.
Today Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas is home to the armed forces’ sophisticated MWD recruitment and training facility. Canines are bred selectively and chosen for service based upon an ideal set of characteristics. However, this was not the case when Bill was there sixty years ago.
“The dogs in the program back then were all donated,” he recalls. “Most of them were probably there because they had bitten the mailman ten times before getting sent away.”
Bill graduated from “dog school” at Lackland and reported to his first duty station. He barely had time to get settled before being ordered back to Texas in December of 1965. Once there he was paired with a dog and prepared to deploy to Southeast Asia. His team would be the first to bring military working dogs to fight in Vietnam.
“Back then they sent the worst dogs they had. They just wanted to get rid of them. One dog was dragging his leg, another was blind in one eye,” he says. “You’re going to a combat zone, these are not the dogs you want to go with.”
Bill considered himself lucky. His canine partner was an intelligent and capable 115-pound German Shepherd named Shadow.
“He was a really good dog, but he was big,” the veteran recalls. “He would break arms and legs when he hit someone, never mind before he started chewing on them.”
Working conditions in Vietnam were dangerous and uncomfortable. The American ground war had recently begun. Even winter temperatures were extremely hot. Deadly snakes filled the jungle. And the United States military sprayed Agent Orange liberally.
Time and again, Shadow proved to be a valuable asset when patrolling enemy territory. To Bill, the canine was a man’s best friend and an aggressor’s worst nightmare.
Bill was anxious to return to the U.S. at the end of his tour. The military working dog handler had seen enough devastation and destruction to last a lifetime. But he was heartbroken to go home without Shadow. The highly trained canine would stay behind to work with a new handler.
Before leaving the war zone Bill went out to where the dogs were kept one last time. He let Shadow out to play for a bit and said a tearful goodbye to his fierce protector. But putting the dog back in the kennel and hanging up his leash was an emotional experience that Bill will never forget.
“I told myself not to look back as I was walking away, but I couldn’t help it,” Bill remembers. “I turned around and looked at him. He was looking back at me, and I took a picture of him.”
As painful as it was, the Vietnam veteran never regretted his decision to look back.
“The more times I’ve looked at that picture, the more I’m glad I did that. He was my best friend when I was over there.”
The good life
After Vietnam, Bill resumed his stateside duties on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. He married his junior high school sweetheart, Jeanne, and separated from service a short time later. The newlyweds settled in their native state of Rhode Island and started a family.
Bill worked for five decades in the precious metals industry and Jeanne worked both inside and out of the home. In their spare time they explored the world.
The couple enjoyed relaxing vacations to Maine and New Hampshire and exciting jaunts to Las Vegas and Atlantic City. They travelled to Hawaii, Alaska, and Ireland, and visited Rome multiple times. They even celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary onboard a two-week Mediterranean cruise that Bill thought was “one week too long.”
The former military working dog handler admits he has led a very rich life and he gives his beloved wife all of the credit.
“I’ve had a great life thanks to Jeanne. I was so spoiled because I got to take care of the outside of the house, and she took care of everything inside the home.”
Sometimes, though, a wonderful family and the passage of time is not enough to erase the trauma of war.
The invisible wounds of war
Over the years Bill routinely turned down invitations to speak about his service at local schools and community events. To this day he refuses to watch television programs or movies about the Vietnam War.
“I’ve been there. They can’t show me anything I didn’t see. And I don’t want to see any of it again,” he shares. “I survived it over there, but I feel bad for the way a lot of guys got killed. It was terrible.”
These manifestations of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are not uncommon among combat veterans like Bill. Vietnam veterans are estimated to have the highest incidence of PTSD of any modern conflict.
One of the ways Bill copes with PTSD is by staying in touch with fellow military working dog handlers and other men with whom he served. Emerging research suggests that a strong social network can play a valuable role in helping Vietnam veterans process their wartime experiences later in life.
“I still exchange Christmas cards with some of the guys, and we see each other at reunions. We get on the phone a couple times a month, and we talk. Sometimes we cry,” the veteran admits. “It was tough over there, but I made it through with some good friendships.”
Excess equipment left behind
One particular aspect of the war still weighs on Bill.
“At the end of the war President Nixon said he was bringing the boys home with honor, but he left more than 4,000 dogs over there.”
After the war ended and troops returned home the military working dogs were deemed excess equipment and left behind. Many were euthanized, some were given to the Vietnamese army, and others were simply left to fend for themselves.
For many years Bill attended reunions held for former and current military working dog handlers. At one gathering he met a fellow handler who served after he did at the same Vietnam base.
The gentleman did not remember the dog named Shadow that Bill described to him. But he promised to look through some old photos he had taken while in Vietnam. Lo and behold, he found a picture of a cemetery that showed a cross bearing the name ‘Shadow.’
Bill was grateful to receive a copy of the photo. The chance meeting provided much needed closure to a chapter of his life that haunted him for many years.
“I was glad to find out Shadow died over there of natural causes or whatever it was because that means he didn’t end up on someone’s dinner table.”
“…like losing a member of the family”
Through all of life’s ups and downs one thing never changed – Bill’s love for dogs.
The former military working dog handler’s favorite breed has always been German Shepherds. He and Jeanne had several as pets over time. But the couple’s most recent four-legged companion was a Golden Retriever named Ginger.
Bill was devastated when Ginger passed away. The loss was even more profound for Jeanne – so much so that she made a command decision.
“Losing a pet is like losing a member of the family,” Bill admits. “After losing Ginger, Jeanne said, ‘No more dogs. I don’t want to go through this anymore.’”
Bill was not happy with Jeanne’s edict, but he understood how she felt. And he had learned the key to a successful marriage over the years.
“When you’re married you’re not always going to see eye to eye. Marriage is a give and take. Sometimes you do it her way and sometimes you get to do it your way,” he says. “That’s how we got along for 55 years.”
Several times Bill would suggest that the couple get another dog, but Jeanne was adamant. He hoped his wife would eventually change her mind and he resorted to kidding around in the meantime.
“I joked with her that if anything ever happened to her, I was going to get three German Shepherds,” he laughs, “and we were all going to sleep in the bed together.”
Bill had no idea at the time that in just a few short weeks he would suffer an unimaginable loss.
There is no replacement
On July 5, 2020, Bill woke before Jeanne as he normally did. He went out for coffee and muffins, and expected to find her awake upon his return.
Jeanne was not in her customary spot at the kitchen table, so the veteran figured his wife had slept poorly. Jeanne suffered from Legionnaires disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, and not been feeling well of late.
Bill checked on Jeanne twice and assumed she was just sleeping in. But his concern grew with each passing minute, and on his third visit to the bedroom he tried waking her. Bill slowly came to the realization that his wife had quietly passed away in her sleep.
Losing his one true love was a shock that has still not fully set in.
“People say to me, ‘You should be over it by now,’ but I think I’ll get over it when I get over it.”
Moving on in life without his best friend has not been easy. Bill’s children and grandchildren visit often. The neighbors generously bring him meals and invite him over. But nothing can replace the love and companionship he and his wife shared.
“After Jeanne passed away, I spent all my time in the house, crying all the time,” he shares. “I was so lonesome.”
Fighting battles on many fronts
Coming to terms with Jeanne’s death is not Bill’s only challenge. The veteran military working dog handler is coping with the long-term effects of PTSD. And he is undergoing treatment for bladder cancer, a result of exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.
Bill appreciates the comprehensive and compassionate care he receives at the local Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital. The social workers routinely check on him and even coordinated a weekly home meal delivery for him. His urologist is a fellow Vietnam veteran with a sense of humor, and who brings levity to otherwise uncomfortable treatment options.
“I can’t say enough good about the VA. They’ve done an awful lot for me,” he says. “It’s like everyone there went to school to learn how to treat people.”
There is one doctor in particular to whom Bill feels he owes a special debt of gratitude – one who believes in the therapeutic benefits of companion pet adoption.
“One of my doctors at the VA said, ‘You should really have a dog. You shouldn’t be in the house by yourself.’ I thought that was a good idea – as long as I could get a German Shepherd.”
That doctor was familiar with Pets for Patriots and our work in pairing military veterans with overlooked shelter animals. The wheels were in motion.
“…crying like a baby”
Bill called and visited shelters across Rhode Island, looking for a German Shepherd to no avail. Then he got a phone call from someone at the VA telling him there was a German Shepherd available for adoption at Potter League for Animals in nearby Middletown.
Since 2019, the shelter offers veterans in our program a 25 percent discount on adoption fees and half-priced dog training classes. Bill drove there right away. He waited in the lobby while a staff member brought out six year-old Bear.
Bill was speechless when he first set his eyes upon Bear.
“He came around the corner, and I thought it was the dog I had in Vietnam,” he recalls. “Oh my, I started crying like a baby.”
Bear had only recently been released by the shelter’s medical team and made available for adoption. For months he battled a significant skin infection that caused him to lose most of his hair. His previous owner surrendered him in love because she could not afford the necessary medication. Now on the mend and with his gorgeous fur growing back, Bear was ready to find a new home.
The pair were ushered to a room where they could get to know each other better. Bill knew right away that Bear would make a wonderful companion and could help ease his loneliness.
“I told them at the shelter, ‘I’m going to take this dog home today,’ but they said I couldn’t yet because it had to be approved by Pets for Patriots,” he recalls.
The power of pet adoption
At the time Bill knew nothing about our program or all the magic we worked behind the scenes. He only knew that he would have been hurt if someone else came and adopted Bear first.
Potter League for Animals agreed to a temporary foster arrangement. This meant Bill and Bear could go home together immediately while they waited for Bill’s Pets for Patriots application to be approved. Within days Bill was part of our program and received a call to return to the shelter to sign Bear’s adoption paperwork.
The widower was overjoyed to adopt Bear through our partnership with Potter League for Animals and receive all of the benefits our program has to offer.
“You people saved my life,” he says. “This dog is fantastic. Bear, he’s my baby.”
The adoption soon made the local news. Now Bill and Bear are often recognized around town.
“They ask, ‘Did we see your dog on the TV?’ I ask them back, ‘Didn’t you see me on the TV, too?’”
Joking aside, Bill marvels at how lucky he was to cross paths with such an amazing dog.
“I’m 79 years old, and after the episode with Jeanne I started thinking about how no one knows how much time they have left. I want to go out with a German Shepherd.”
The former military working dog handler is impressed that his new companion understands voice commands and hand signals like ‘sit’ and ‘down.’ And Bill jokes that his handling skills are a bit rustier than Bear’s obedience.
“I made one mistake with him. I let him have a piece of the crust from my pizza, and he loved it. But now it doesn’t matter what I’m eating, he sits right next to me and looks at me,” he says. “He wants my fish and chips, my cheeseburger. Anything I have, he wants a piece.”
The antidote to loneliness
Bill is thankful that Bear makes their home seem less lonely after Jeanne’s passing and remedies the silence.
“With Bear, I have someone to talk to now. He always comes over with his tail wagging, so I assume he likes me, too.”
One of the best parts of the week for both of them is when Bill returns from the grocery store.
“I always say to him, ‘Wait until you see what I bought for you this time.’ I always try to find a different snack for him. He gets so happy over it.”
Bear may or may not know the critical role he plays in helping Bill overcome the pain of losing his wife, but he certainly does his part to let him know that he is not alone.
However, Bill still finds himself unable to participate in activities that reinforce Jeanne’s absence. The widower recently declined an invitation to see his first grandchild graduate from college.
“If I went, I would have pictured my wife there, and I just couldn’t do it,” he confides. “Jeanne would have been so proud. She would have been there with bells on.”
Bear seems to sense Bill’s heartache. For a couple of months after their adoption the big dog slept in the bed with the widowed veteran. They have since established a new routine and it is no less endearing.
“When I get in bed at night he puts his chin on the mattress like he’s saying good night,” he shares. “It’s kind of a tearjerker that he thinks to do that.”
Gift from heaven
Everyone processes grief on their own terms and timeline. Bill is thankful to have Bear at his side while he navigates uncharted territory.
“It’s taken me time to adjust. I’m not used to being alone yet, but without this dog, I’d be lost,” he admits. “I’m not going to say it’s getting easier, but it’s not as bad as it was.”
And there is no doubt in his mind who sent Bear to him. Despite Jeanne’s insistence that the couple would not get another dog after Ginger’s passing, she knew how much a canine companion meant to her husband.
“The shelter told me Bear and I are a match made in heaven. And I certainly believe that. Jeanne said, ‘No more dogs,’ at one point, but I know she had a hand in this,” he says, adding, “Bear was a gift from heaven.”
Bill never forgot Shadow, the military working dog he was forced to leave behind in Vietnam.
That heartache was the first of many profound challenges in Bill’s life. Losing his wife of 55 years. Battling both PTSD and cancer.
And so it seems just that life would send him the one thing that he needed most: a dog. Not just any dog, but a German Shepherd who is a spitting image of his beloved Shadow.
“Adopting a pet is the best thing in the world,” he says. “This dog is everything I wanted, and he’s perfect.”