He’d been searching for the sense of purpose he found in the Army. He never guessed the plan God had for him.
Posted in , Dec 24, 2020
I’d finished running errands, but I was taking my sweet time getting home. The dog we’d agreed to foster—our first—would be there by now. No doubt already stinking up the house. Chewing stuff. Shedding everywhere. God, what am I getting myself into?
Dogs were my wife Nicole’s thing. I didn’t need a fur ball around to make me happy. Just the opposite. For years I’d told myself I’d never get serious with a woman who owned a dog. Then I met Nicole, a waitress at one of my favorite restaurants. We started dating. It was a few months before she introduced me to Lotus, her big slobbery Olde English Bulldogge.
“I would be a mess without her,” Nicole said. “She’s gotten me through so much.”
By then I was crazy about Nicole. If she loved Lotus, then I could learn to live with the dog. Lotus was six. Not an unruly puppy, at least.
Nicole and I were both going through divorces and dealing with depression and anxiety. I knew what she meant about having something, someone to count on. I had served seven years in the Army, in the 3rd Infantry Division, known as the dogface soldiers, oddly enough. Though I’d been out for a while, I struggled with civilian life. Nothing gave me that same sense of mission, that feeling I was doing God’s work. There was this emptiness inside me that wouldn’t go away.
Except when I was with Nicole. She made the world feel like a brighter place, even if her dog outranked me. Where Nicole saw undying affection, I saw drool. That didn’t change after we married and had our first child, our daughter Zaida.
Over time I made my peace with Lotus, even warmed up to her a little. I liked to run to clear my mind, and she’d run with me. Her ears would perk up as I made up my own cadences, singing out loud like I was back at Fort Stewart, Georgia, in the 3rd Infantry. At those moments there was this connection between us. I could sort of understand what Nicole was talking about.
Last summer Lotus passed away. She was almost 12. I’ll admit it, I was sad. Nicole was devastated. I had to do something. But none of the low maintenance hypoallergenic dogs I found for sale online interested her.
“Maybe we should foster dogs,” she said. “There are so many who need loving homes.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Won’t they have issues?” Part of me had hoped we might have a break before getting another dog. Nicole was pregnant. Zaida was three and into everything. Didn’t we have enough going on?
Nicole found an organization nearby, Bridge to Home Animal Rescue. There were forms to fill out. A home visit. Our job was to evaluate the dogs and see how they behaved in different situations, to help make the best match with a new owner. Within days of being approved as a foster family, we got a call from president Tracey Crompton. “We have a dog for you,” she said. “His owner passed away, and he has nowhere to go.”
Now our first pet had been dropped off at our house. I couldn’t postpone going home any longer—Nicole was expecting me. I opened the door. The house was quiet. Zaida was down for a nap. I peeked in our bedroom. Nicole was lying in bed. In her arms was a mop of unkempt brown fur. “Isn’t he adorable?” she said. “His name is Cubby. He’s a shih tzu.” He looked like an Ewok from the Star Wars movies. Not in a good way.
“Wow,” I said, trying to sound enthusiastic. “He’s a real…cutie.”
I went into the living room and stretched out on the floor, staring up at the ceiling. I’d been looking for answers ever since I’d left the Army.
It was hard to describe the fulfillment I’d felt while serving. I’d enlisted right out of high school. I loved the discipline, the camaraderie, the total commitment demanded of me. I was serving our country and doing God’s work. I thrived in the Army and made sergeant before I was 21. I fell in love with a civilian woman and got married. Everything was falling into place.
Each morning at Fort Stewart after reveille at 0630 we proudly sang the words to “Dogface Soldier,” a World War II tune penned as a tribute to the 3rd Infantry. “I wouldn’t give a bean to be a fancy pants Marine; I’d rather be a dogface soldier like I am.” For us dogface soldiers, no obstacle was too big to overcome. We always found a way.
I was assigned to an antiaircraft system battalion, a rapid deployment unit. Every day we trained on our weapons, repeating every step, down to the most minute detail. There was no room for error. Lives were on the line. For the first time, I was part of something bigger than myself.
Then came September 11. Our country went to war. In January 2003, my unit deployed to Kuwait, primed to lead the ground attack all the way to Baghdad. We dodged bullets. At one point, hundreds of angry Iraqis surrounded our vehicle. Tanks got blown up by roadside bombs. Some of my comrades lost their lives. I saw enough to scramble my mind.
When the deployment was over, I couldn’t be around crowds and felt on edge all the time. My marriage fell apart. I chose not to re-up. Therapy and medication for PTSD and, of course, meeting Nicole helped me feel like myself again, but my sense of purpose was gone.
I’d hoped I’d find it again through work. I got hired by a big-box hardware store and was on a management track, but I couldn’t get excited about power tool sales. Then I tried manufacturing, followed by running my own industrial safety supply business. It all left me cold. All that time in the military, my years as a dogface soldier, learning to think strategically and make things happen—if that was part of God’s plan, I wished I knew what he was preparing me for.
Finally I took a job as a correctional officer at a state prison, thinking that it would feel like the military. But there wasn’t the same sense of accomplishment. The inmates weren’t going to better their lives because of me. I stayed because the pay and benefits were good for supporting a family. I had a wife who meant the world to me. A beautiful daughter and another on the way. Why wasn’t that enough?
Lying there on the carpet, I felt something wet against my cheek. I turned and found myself face-to-face with Cubby. His tongue stroked my face. Lovingly. Urgently. As if he sensed I needed healing. Then something broke inside of me—the rugged armor I’d built up over the years. The next thing I knew, I was cradling that little brown mop in my arms.
Nicole appeared in the living room doorway. She started taking pictures with her phone. “Look at my big handsome man loving on little Cubby,” she said. “These pics will be great for helping him find a home.”
I looked at Cubby. I’d thought he was here for Nicole to take care of. It never occurred to me that I had something to offer. There was a home to be found. That meant networking. Promotion. I can do videos with Zaida. I was on fire with ideas. That strategic thinking I’d learned in the military kicked in. I was a man on a mission.
A week later we found a forever home for Cubby. A fellow foster family fell in love with him. It felt great knowing I’d helped give him a new beginning.
A few weeks later we got another call, this time to meet a small plane full of rescue dogs from Kentucky. Seeing all those animals and knowing they had been slated to go to a kill shelter really got to me. What we were doing mattered. Lives were on the line.
A woman led a small black dog to Nicole and me. “Say hi to Cocoa Chanel,” she said. I knelt down and extended a hand. “Hi, beautiful,” I said. Cocoa shrank back.
“It’s common for rescue dogs to be skittish,” the woman said.
I thought Cocoa might settle down at our house, but she stayed huddled in her crate. I got busy putting the word out on Facebook. Almost immediately I got queries. But they didn’t seem right. Cocoa was nervous around us. She needed an owner who understood what she’d been through.
A couple of weeks went by. Then an e-mail hit my inbox. “Our ten-year-old daughter is adopted,” it read. “She’s loving and kind.…” I didn’t have to read any further.
We drove 40 minutes to the family’s house. Before I could tell them much about Cocoa, how she would need patience, she was snuggling in the girl’s lap. Meant to be.
It has been two years now since Nicole and I started fostering dogs. We’ve found homes for nearly 20 so far—Pomeranians, chihuahuas, bulldogs, mixed breeds. Some suffered from neglect and anxiety, others were blind or had skin problems. We’ve loved them all. It may have taken longer than I would have liked, but I’ve found a way to serve again, to do God’s work. The fact that we help these dogs as a family—Nicole; Zaida; our younger daughter, Waverly; and me—makes it even more meaningful. We might not be precision trained like an Army squad, but don’t count us out. A dogface soldier always finds a way.
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