Shelter dog gives hope to Navy veteran battling chronic depression

Michael is a Navy veteran who for years has battled chronic depression. His decision to adopt a shelter dog to save his own life in fact saved two – his and that of a large mixed breed dog – and was more than two years in the making. Thanks to our partnership with Lollypop Farm Humane Society of Greater Rochester for helping make this story possible, as told in Michael’s own words.

Navy gives veteran a sense of purpose and value

I was a Nuke ELT in the Navy.

After my training I spent the rest of my enlistment assigned to the USS Virginia CGN38. I got to see a lot of the Caribbean while the ship was depleting the last of the core life prior to a scheduled refueling, but after the fall of the Soviet Union, the decision was made to take the nuke cruises out of service. Like many nukes, I enlisted after having failed at my first attempt at college.

In the nuke Navy I found a culture that valued competence above many things that I did not have (like strong social skills), and gave me work that was challenging and important. While never the most natural leader in my time, I was always respected for my skills and knowledge.

Michael and Bear

Probably the most memorable experience for me was when I ended up as the person aboard ship who was in charge of the All Hands Radcon training: making sure that everyone on board, including temporary personnel, were fully briefed on the things they needed to know for living around two operating nuclear reactor plants.

As an E-4 I was very junior for the responsibility, but very well respected doing the work. For all that, the Chief Engineer did tell me that I had to tone down the morbid humor in my training lectures.

“Living quietly” with chronic and worsening depression

I’m living in Rochester, New York.

I’m on a non-service related disability pension from the Veterans Administration (VA). After I completed my service, I found my life-long issues with depression getting worse. After my second breakdown I ended up being unable to find work, and eventually got pointed towards the VA’s disability pension available for veterans who have served in a time of war

I have been living quietly, since, and helping out my parents as they’ve aged and had their own health crises.

Adopting a pet to “save my life”

The reasons I chose to adopt a pet are pretty complex. There’s no one thing I can point to, except something so banal it’s going to sound like pure hyperbole.

Getting a dog was going to be, for me, a goal that would save my life.

Trite, I know. But it’s more accurate than I really like to admit.

By July of 2012 I had come to realize that the apartment I was living in was not healthy for me, in any number of ways. But while I was planning to ‘eventually’ move, I had only about half of the money saved that I estimated I would need to put down a security deposit on a new and healthier apartment.

It was about then that I had a regular appointment with my doctor at the local VA clinic, and somehow the benefits of pet ownership came up, especially for those people with mental illness who are stable enough to provide a safe home for those pets. And so he pointed me towards this program he had recently heard about, Pets for Patriots.

Pets for Patriots helps veteran realize dream of pet adoption 

In all seriousness, it’s impossible for me to disassociate my decision to get a pet with my decision to use the Pets for Patriots program to help me achieve that goal.

Getting a dog had always been a goal, but it was in that same sort of nebulous future that my plans to move from my apartment were in – and with about as much concrete expectation of an actual completion of that plan. When I looked at the paperwork my doctor had shown me, and then examined the Pets for Patriots website, I found that they were already partnered with an animal shelter locally. I also saw that the program would assist me in getting the sort of dog I wanted: one large enough that I didn’t have to scrunch down to scratch behind the ears. And I realized with the assistance the program was offering, I could get through the program, I didn’t have to wait for someday. It was already here.

[I asked myself ] if I was willing to put any animal I cared about into the same living conditions I was existing in.

Prospect of pet adoption inspires a healthier life

Suddenly, not only had my plan to eventually adopt a dog gotten a kick start, but my goal to eventually get into healthier lodging was taken from a nebulous “someday” and placed into “ASAP.”

I still was on a limited income, and saving for the bare minimum expenses for making a move was still going to take time, but I could fine tune my budget and make sure I was saving as much as possibly could. 

I also checked on the Pets for Patriots website and saw that I could apply for membership based on a long-term plan to rescue a dog – and did so. That was the first concrete step I could take, and doing that provided the momentum to start tackling the other steps that needed to be faced. Along the way, I also learned to keep my eye open for the unplanned, too.  (Michael) Bear

The biggest example of that was when I realized that there was an opportunity in the imbalance between property values in the city of Rochester and the rental rates common to the area. Once I started looking for an apartment, most of the places that would allow pets were asking $700/month, or more. Without utilities included. And those places that were cheaper were often going to mean embracing some of the things I had been hoping to escape in my current lodging when I moved. But when I looked at the prices some of the houses in the city were going for, I realized that it was possible to find a property to purchase, using my VA Home Loan Guarantee, with a much lower payment than I’d face paying rent in anywhere livable.

So, with almost no planning for such a possibility, in March of 2013, I started looking for a house. 

A house to call home

I hunted down local first time home buyer’s grant programs. I dealt with several banks, looking for a program there that I could qualify for, and [that] would be suitable for my needs. I even naively hoped to be able to close by the fourth of July. Obviously that didn’t happen. But by July of 2013 I did find a house, in excellent shape, with fenced-in yard, in a nice, solid residential neighborhood. I put a bid in on it, and eventually the sellers and I managed to come to an agreement.

Getting the loan through the approval process was a bit more challenging than anyone had expected. Having the government shutdown happen in the middle of that did nothing to make things simpler or less stressful.

In spite of all these obstacles (and sometimes outright bizarre ones were cropping up) I persevered, met all my deadlines, coordinated everything that I had to, and kept the process moving. During all this, the motivation remained firm: once I got my house, I would be able to get my dog.

Without even having a clear idea of what sort of dog I was going to get (“I want a big dog, but not too big”), just getting ready for having a dog in my life was changing my life, and vastly for the better.
A bump in the road on the way to ‘Dogmas’

Finally, in the beginning of November I closed on my house and could begin to move in. But before I could go and celebrate what I was starting to call ‘Dogmas,’ I had an accident on a sloped driveway involving glare ice. I hyper-extended my knee, and did a great deal of damage to my leg muscles. So, instead of having ‘Dogmas,’ I was learning to navigate with crutches on a leg that was in pain and not nearly as strong as it used to be. I was lucky, though: for all the undoubted damage I did, I didn’t need surgical repair. Just a long, and still ongoing convalescence. 

But while I was moved into my house, mostly, and had gotten the important things unpacked – my house felt very empty. For over eighteen months, by that point, my major focus had been to get a dog.

Not because I had convinced myself a dog would fix everything in my life, but because having a dog in my life would make it better.

And after coming so far, I didn’t want to keep coming back to an empty house. 

I finally allowed myself to start haunting the websites of the now three Pets for Patriots approved rescue groups in my area. I established my credentials with each of them, so that they’d have paperwork on file for me, and discussed what I was looking for with people as I saw listings for dogs that met both my own desires and the requirements of the Pets for Patriots program.

I had frustrations and was still only partially mobile because of my injury, but I was determined that as soon as I was able, I would have a dog in my house and my life. 

From Rochester, with love

Finally on Valentine’s Day I had an appointment to see what seemed [like] a promising dog from the Lollypop Farm website. I got to meet this slightly goofy, very nervous Boxer/Retriever mix named Bear, and we hit it off right then. And I took him home with me that day. And nothing’s been the same since.

Bear is my comfort, and a constant joy in my life.

Sometimes a frustrating joy, but always playful, always eager to be with me. I find it particularly interesting that he was born a month after I made my decision to become a Pets for Patriots member. That in some ways while I was getting things ready for him, he was getting ready for me, too.

A bit of fantasy, perhaps, but a harmless amusement for me.

“A pet can save your hope”

The first thing I’d say is that the people with Pets for Patriots are incredibly supportive and patient. :) I don’t think that anyone had any idea that it would be almost two years before I could go from being an approved member to having my honorably adopted pet.

I would also say that pets do improve our lives so much.

I doubt many other veterans or service members are going to need quite so large a kick in the ass to get out of a mold-infested apartment, but there are so many ways that a pet can save your hope or your spirit if you open your heart to one. There are so many pets in the shelters that need help, too.

No one can save the world, but maybe you can help save one thing in the world. And be so rewarded for doing it.

Comments

  1. Shannon Cosner says:

    That was beautiful and moving. Thank you for sharing your story!! And you write wonderfully as well. Bless you for your service and saving a wonderful animal.

  2. Catherine says:

    “Ditto” Shannon Cosner’s comment above – I can’t think of a better way to relay the impact your story has. It takes courage to share one’s story and you did so quite articulately – it is certain to inspire others.

  3. Jay Freeman says:

    Love it. As one who screens for a local pet rescue organization, it is heartwarming to see the hope that a dog can bring to someone in need. God bless you, Michael, for your service, and also for saving the life of a dog who needed you just as much as you needed him.

    • Jay, well said! We’re amazing every day at how these discarded pets – once given a chance at life – have such a tremendous and transformational impact on our veterans.

  4. What a heartwarming and encouraging story! You will no doubt provide inspiration to many who find themselves in similar straights. Bear sounds like a very real gift from God, blessings on the two of you!

  5. I am so happy you found love and companionship with your baby. Since you are disabled would he not be considered a companion or therapy animal? I trained my “puppy ” when he was 8 weeks and on to assist me with my wobbly gait and to stay with me when I fell. He loved to “work ” and was the absolute love of my life. He was 14 when he went to puppy heaave heaven this past Sept. And I’m looking for another (same breed) which there seem to be a lot of in NY…loo Anyway your letter was very raw and honest….and I appreciate your opening up and wish you the absolute best friendship ever…..Smile every day, talk and sing to your baby. I did all that…even read to him. Please let us know time to time how your doing. (Could start a scrapbook too) …. take care. !!

    • Diane, a companion animal is simply a personal pet and a therapy animal is one that is trained for the benefit of people other than its hander (such as visiting hospitals, for example). Thank you for sharing!

  6. Congratulation to both you and Bear. Sometimes we dont realize how much we need another soul in our lives until there they are. Dont kid yourself everythiing happens for a reason he was meant to be in your life

  7. Living quietly with depression is not a good idea. Pets can help with keeping depression to manageable levels, but we all need to open up and talk about our depression with someone who cares.

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