Greg was awarded a Bronze Star for his heroic service in combat, but it is the Air Force veteran’s decision to rescue an abandoned homeless dog that is closest to his heart.
Finding direction in the military
Like many young men and women, Greg was a teen without a clear direction for his future. His grandfather was a pilot, though not in the military, and his father an Army veteran.
“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life,” he says of his younger self, “so I went into the Air Force straight out of high school.”
It was 1985 and Greg was just 16 years old when he enlisted; he went active at 17.
The military opened up a whole new world to Greg, who was originally interested in military photography. However, that job field was closed out by the time he went into basic training and Greg had “a list of different things I wanted to do.” He chose to become a fire protection specialist. He enjoyed his new career and pursued additional training, eventually becoming a para-rescue specialist. These are elite, highly trained battlefield airmen who are called upon to fulfill the most challenging rescue missions anywhere in the world.
“I got into the medical part of it and then I got into the more clandestine stuff,” he says, “jumping out of planes.”
Greg’s para-rescue duties took him into three combat zones: Panama, the Persian Gulf and Serbia/Kosovo. During each tour rescuing his brothers-in-arms, Greg suffered injuries of his own. He was shot twice – in Panama and Kuwait, respectively – and hit by shrapnel while serving in Serbia.
While the Air Force veteran’s physical injuries have long since healed, he was left with lasting internal scars that remain to this day. Greg joined the estimated 12 percent of Persian Gulf War veterans diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, and was awarded the Bronze Star for his distinguished service in combat.
Gone to the dogs
“Always had dogs, loved dogs.”
Greg grew up breeding and raising German Shepherds, Great Danes and Coon dogs, but these days the Air Force veteran is a “huge proponent of saving lives through adoption” over breeding dogs for purchase. It was why Greg turned to companion pet adoption after his beloved rescue dog, Sugar, died at 15 years of age.
“When we rescued her she was already seven years old,” Greg says, noting that she while she was a family dog, she was most attached to his daughter.
“It kind of got lonely,” he adds. “I decided I needed a companion of my own, so I got Big Ben.”
The aptly named dog was eight months old and already 55 pounds when he and Greg met at the Greater Huntsville Humane Society in Alabama. The organization is one of hundreds of shelters, rescues, SPCAs, humane societies and municipal animal controls that partner with Pets for Patriots to help the most overlooked companion dogs and cats find loving homes with veterans.
“We were doing a walk through and he was the largest dog there,” says Greg, “and I figured he was going to be the least likely to be adopted due to his size.”
That was not the only thing to get Greg’s attention, however; he was drawn to Ben’s soulful hound dog eyes and droopy ears – and felt strongly that there was something special about him, a Blue Tick Coon Hound and German Shepherd mix. The veteran asked for a “meet and greet” to see if man and dog were compatible.
“He was super gentle, we hit if off great,” Greg reminisces about their first time meeting.
The staff at Greater Huntsville Humane Society told Greg about Pets for Patriots, noting that Ben qualified in our program due to his size. The Air Force veteran applied to our program, was approved, and promptly adopted Ben – or perhaps it was the other way around – and became our charity’s first honorable adoption through our partnership with this shelter.
A rescue who rescues others
Greg was right; there is something special about Ben. The big dog – already 120 pounds at 14 months – has the ability detect anxiety, and provide love and comfort to those who need it.
“I suffer with severe PTSD and he naturally would key in on my triggers,” Greg says. “He would pick up on when I was starting to trigger on something, and he would grab me by the hand or get in my lap and literally knock me out of it. I never trained him to do it; he would see me get agitated and upset and pull me out of it.”
Ben even intervenes if Greg is having a nightmare by climbing into bed to calm him down.
The big rescue dog’s abilities are all the more remarkable considering his life before adoption, when he was found abandoned in the woods with a dog believed to be his sister. Realizing he had a gifted dog on his hands, Ben made the bold decision to share Ben’s gifts with others in need.
The pair started obedience training and Ben proved to be a model student, graduating a few weeks ahead of schedule. He moved on to advanced obedience and training to become a therapy dog, which is a type of assistance animal trained for the benefit of people other than its handler. When he was just 12 months old, Ben started working as a therapy animal.
Despite Ben’s size, he is a gentle giant and has a heart that knows no limits. His calm nature, coupled with obedience training that emphasizes his native passiveness, makes him an ideal dog “therapist” to people in nursing homes, hospitals and rehabilitation centers. Ben goes out about four or five times a week to share his love with others who may need it.
“He is so gentle,” Greg observes, “and he loves it.”
And then there were two
Despite his generally calm demeanor, Ben is still a puppy at heart – albeit a very large one – and in need of all the things a puppy requires.
“We did get concerned when he was a little bit younger that he wasn’t getting enough exercise or attention,” Greg shares, “so we got him a friend, and she is still in training.”
Carmalita is a terrier-hound mix with personality similar to Ben, and adopted through the Greater Huntsville Humane Society as well. She is being trained to work with Ben as a therapy dog. The pair join Greg on a two mile walk every evening, and the neighbors are always quick to come out and greet Ben.
“He has one of those personalities and you can’t help but love him. If I go someplace without him I get in trouble; they want to know where he is.”
Between therapy visits, nightly walks and visiting local attractions in the community – dogs in tow – Greg is becoming more socially engaged as well.
“Training [Ben] and Carma has gotten me out of my shell a little bit,” he explains.
The importance of adopt, don’t shop
For other veterans in search of pet companionship, Greg stresses the importance of searching local shelters or rescues where there are so many lives on the line. He cautions not to judge any animal by his or her appearance, but to instead pick a pet who “fits your personality.” His heart breaks every time he hears about dogs being returned to the shelters due to being too energetic, too large or having behavioral issues.
“They do sometimes have some problems and you have to learn to work with them,” the Air Force veteran shares, adding, “so before you take the leap, spend some time with them. Don’t always go with the cutest.”
Although Ben has been a blessing to his veteran and to the many people they visit, Greg admits that the big dog had some issues. He liked to chew up shoes, and has a stubborn streak that is common to many hound dogs. For the most part Ben is calm and gentle, with one exception.
“If you are a squirrel. Then he only wants to chase you, not bite you,” Greg laughs.
Since adopting Ben, Greg has become an unofficial spokesperson in the community. He describes his experience with Pets for Patriots as “wonderful,” adding that the financial support and discounted adoption fee made it easier to afford a crate, bed and other things Ben needed. The Bronze Star veteran even enjoys discounted veterinary care from our partner Chase Animal Hospital in Huntsville.
Most important, Ben has changed Greg’s life for the better, and for his part the big rescue dog has a newfound purpose as a gentle and affable healer. Greg is no longer hostage to his PTSD, and is able to more easily get out into the community, socialize with other people and bring help to those in need.
“Since I can’t work in the medical field,” he says, “at least I can help with the kids and the elderly, and let them enjoy spending time with an animal. It’s wonderful.”