A couple, a veteran and a dog come together in unlikely fashion at a Pennsylvania holiday arts and crafts festival.
STEPHANIE: Christmas City Village! I’d been dreaming of coming to this fabulous arts and crafts festival in downtown Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for years. But December was always busy, and Bethlehem is a 90-minute drive from where we live. Marty and I had been particularly busy in 2016. Still, we planned a little getaway and finally made the trip.
MARTY: The SteelStacks building, once the heart of the Bethlehem Steel mill and now an arts center, was aglow with lights. The holiday spirit was all around. Yet Christmastime has been bittersweet ever since I lost my brother Mark in 2004. A lieutenant colonel in the Army, he’d been killed in Mosul, Iraq, a city he had taken pride in helping to rebuild. He was just 11 months older than me, and growing up, the two of us were as close as twins.
Mark was a big guy with a goofy sense of humor and a heart of gold. As adults, we’d never had enough time together, especially after his Army career took him far from home. Twelve years after his death, I still missed him every single day. At the holidays it hurt all the more.
STEPHANIE: I think Marty needed this getaway as much as I did. He’d gone through a lot the last several years. We strolled hand in hand through the rows of vendors at Christmas City Village. Marty bought me a gorgeous snowflake brooch. So romantic!
MARTY: After an hour or so we went to use the restrooms at the visitor center in the SteelStacks building. Just inside the center’s door sat two volunteers, a woman and a man, checking hand stamps to make sure people had paid admission. My eyes went to the big black dog lying at the man’s feet.
STEPHANIE: Marty and I love dogs. “What kind of dog is that?” I asked. “Is it okay if we pet him?” The dog was wearing a red service vest, so I knew to ask first.
HAROLD: “He’s a mix,” I said. “Black Lab, Great Dane and bull mastiff.” People were always asking me about my dog. I’d had him for six months, and I couldn’t stop talking about him. “Go ahead, he loves to be petted.”
MARTY: I bent down, stroking his fur. Funny, Mark had owned the same three breeds of dogs when he’d died. That was one of his passions, taking in rescue dogs. He was always trying to make the world a better place.
HAROLD: “This dog saved my life,” I said. Somehow I felt as if I needed to tell this couple my story. “I joined the military out of high school. Never saw action, but those eight years were the best of my life. When I got out, I bought a truck and became a long-haul driver. I did well for myself. Then nine years ago I was driving through Ohio when I got a call. My dad had been in a motorcycle accident back in Pennsylvania. It didn’t look like he was going to make it.”
STEPHANIE: Our hearts really went out to him. I nodded, encouraging him to go on.
HAROLD: I told them more. “Dad lingered in the hospital for a year in a coma. Finally I made the decision to take him off life support. His wife fought me, said I’d killed him. The guilt ate at me. Then my truck died. I’d exhausted my savings on Dad’s medical bills and couldn’t fix it. I lost my job, my house. I tried to kill myself. I mean, what did I have to live for anymore?
Two years ago, I moved back to Allentown. I was angry at God, angry at everyone. A doctor diagnosed me with bipolar disorder and PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], and I went into therapy at the VA clinic. A homeless shelter took me in. They had a rule: You had to volunteer 10 hours a week. So I got involved with the arts center here. One day a woman came to give a talk. She was from Tails of Valor, an organization that places service dogs with vets struggling with PTSD.”
MARTY: “That’s how this guy came into my life,” the man at the visitor center said. His dog lifted his head as if he knew we’d come to his part in the story.
HAROLD: I told the couple about the first night my dog came home with me. I was having a nightmare when I felt him snuggling close, hugging me, like he was putting himself between me and my demons. I opened my eyes and the guilt and sadness had lifted. “Tails of Valor is an amazing program,” I said. “They name all their dogs after soldiers killed in action. Phelan means the world to me.”
STEPHANIE: “What?” I blurted. I was sure I’d misunderstood.
HAROLD: “Phelan. That’s my dog’s name,” I said. “The lieutenant colonel, the soldier he’s named after, was really something. A hero. He spearheaded the rebuilding of Mosul.”
MARTY: It was like I was dreaming. Phelan? Who names a dog Phelan? Then it hit me. He was talking about Mark! My brother! I stood, tears streaming down my cheeks. All of a sudden, Phelan leaped up too. Standing on his hind legs, he put his front paws around my neck and hugged me tight. I wrapped my arms around Phelan and hugged him back. In that moment, I felt so loved—it was as if my brother was there with me again.
STEPHANIE: “Mark Phelan?” I said. “That’s Marty’s brother. He was killed in Mosul, his convoy targeted, blown up just before he was to take on a new assignment in Baghdad. Wow! We had no idea he’d been honored like this.” I read the volunteer’s name tag. “I’m so glad we ran into you, Harold.”
HAROLD: You could have knocked me over with a feather. Off and on I’d thought about trying to connect with Lt. Col. Mark Phelan’s family, but I hadn’t known where to start. “The thing is, I never work this location,” I said. “I’m only here to help a new volunteer. I wasn’t even supposed to be working tonight.”
MARTY: Our meeting was no coincidence. That much I’m sure of. Stephanie and I spent the next hour talking with Harold, and we’ve stayed in touch since. I don’t have a logical explanation for it, but every time we get together, Phelan rushes to greet me. Harold says he doesn’t do that with anyone else. There are lots of plaques, even some buildings, that memorialize Mark, but I have to say Phelan, and the connection we share, is the honor that means the most to me.
HAROLD: In the year since we met, Stephanie and Marty have joined me in supporting Tails of Valor, sharing their story at benefits and educational programs around the region. I sometimes think about how alone I felt those years after my dad died, how my life seemed to have no purpose. But God had a plan all along.
STEPHANIE: After Mark passed, we were given a dog tag engraved with his silhouette and a statement about the difference his life had made. We never knew quite what to do with it until that December evening in Bethlehem. Now Phelan wears the tag as he serves his mission to help Harold. Some things are just meant to be.
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