Mark Twain once said that if heaven was a reward to be earned, “you would stay out and your dog would go in.” Clearly the iconic author never met Gary, a combat veteran of Vietnam who believed his recently adopted shelter dog was heaven sent. We have no doubt that Gary’s life and extraordinary service earned him a heavenly perch as well.
Gary died suddenly on June 22, 2014, just days after being interviewed for this story. At the request of his wife, Mary, and in keeping with Gary’s wishes, we are sharing his tale.
Joining the fight
It was 1964 and Gary had just graduated high school. He saw a poster for the Army and decided to enlist.
Over the course of the next three years, Gary served as a helicopter door gunner in addition to doing some signal supply work. Upon his return home and like many Vietnam era veterans, he was treated poorly by some people, including those who resorted to calling him names and “throwing stones at me.”
Despite these experiences, Gary’s commitment to country served as a model for others in his family. His son is in the Army Reserves and previously served in Iraq, and his stepson is retired from the Air Force after 24 years of service.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Vietnam War
Although unpleasant and demeaning, the insults Gary endured paled in comparison to the life and death struggles of combat. Gary was shot down three times in Vietnam, contributing to his development of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – or PTSD – which afflicts as many as 30% of all Vietnam veterans.
The Army veteran described his PTSD as “pretty bad,” adding that for years since the war it saddled him with serious depression.
Loss, then a gift from above
Gary grew up around dogs and cats, and has had pets his entire life. His childhood dog waited for him to come home from Vietnam and passed away soon after his return.
“Dog is man’s best friend,” he said. “I do believe that’s the truth.”
Years later, his son found a stray dog in Detroit who Gary adopted and named Precious. He and Mary then adopted another stray dog named Sandy, a now eight year-old Shepherd mix. Recently the couple’s Chihuahua, Teddy Bear, died at the age of fifteen. Feeling his loss, Gary knew he wanted to add a Chihuahua to his family.
While searching the internet, Mary found the Pets for Patriots website and showed it to her husband, who was immediately interested to join. He visited a local partnering shelter, the Michigan Humane Society in Westland, to see one dog who – by the time the couple arrived – had been already relocated to another adoption location.
Strolling around the shelter, Gary found Marley entirely by chance. When he first met the then three year-old shelter dog, “he jumped right on my lap and kissed me.”
The search was over.
“My eyes met with his and I just melted,” Gary said, adding that he felt as though, “G-d made this dog just for me.”
It’s a dog’s world
Despite the magical connection of man and dog, Mary was not convinced that Marley was the best choice. The couple’s solution: bring in the dogs. Sandy and Precious were enlisted to help make the decision.
In a big room at the shelter, Sandy and Precious “played with Marley like they had been together for years,” Gary marveled, “just like that.”
Mary was persuaded and Gary adopted Marley on the spot. It was January 16, 2014.
A friend to the end
“Marley is always besides me. He seems to know when you need TLC — when you need attention and love,” he said. “I couldn’t have asked for a nicer dog.”
The Vietnam veteran acknowledged his years-long battle with depression, a common and stubborn component of PTSD.
“Before I got Marley, I was really depressed,” Gary shared, “[but] he just seemed to lift me up. He’s just that kind of dog.”
Pet adoption – a beautiful thing
Gary describes his experience with Pets for Patriots as “beautiful.”
The organization offers a range of financial incentives to make pet adoption more affordable, but it’s the human touch that Gary appreciated most. Senior staff reach out out every few weeks to see how person and pet are doing.
“Great to work with,” Gary said of the nationally operating charity. “They want to make sure we are happy.”
While shocked and deeply saddened at Gary’s untimely death, the Pets for Patriots family is honored to have made Gary’s acquaintance in life. Even in death, he already saved many lives through organ donation. His courage, on and off the battlefield, is at once humbling and inspiring. We are grateful to have played even a small role in bringing some happiness to him during the last months of his life, and are heartened to know that Marley will live out his years with Mary, Precious and Sandy.