Willow was a terrified terrier dog who was found living in a drain pipe with her three puppies, one of whom froze to death. She was ultimately rescued and adopted by a Navy veteran who still grapples with the pain of his own abandonment many decades ago.
Feeling their pain
After more than 30 years of service in the Navy and a long career in civilian law enforcement, James is enjoying a well-deserved retirement in the North Carolina mountains. The Vietnam veteran holds an Extra Class License for ham radio and runs his own radio network named “The County Cousins.”
James’ real passion, however, is saving abandoned animals – or “critters” as he likes to call them.
“It seems to be quite common to toss out unwanted animals in the Smoky Mountains,” James says.
As it happens, James knows what it is like to feel unwanted.
“I joined the United States Navy at the age of 17 because I had no family,” he shares. “The Navy became my family.”
For James, a deep reservoir of empathy motivates him to save the lives of animals discarded by others, who have found themselves homeless through no fault of their own.
A hard life at home, a new life at sea
James did not have an easy life. He first left home at age 16 because his parents could no longer support him; his father had heart failure and his mother was seriously ill. The teen quickly realized that life on the streets was rough and joined the National Guard, but left after six months when he realized he would not be able to get an education with them.
The young man came home and did odd jobs for another several months, but none were enough to support him. James enlisted in the Navy, through which he earned his high school degree. In his later years he earned a college degree in criminal justice, paving the way for a post-military career in law enforcement.
During his 30-year Navy career – which included 24 years in active duty and the remainder in the Reserves – James traveled the world. He served on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, at home and abroad, was stationed on destroyers, tenders, at sea and on shore, where he was in charge of hull repairs on ships.
James later repaired submarines, leading to one of the more memorable experiences of his military career. Serving with Submarine Group 5 on the USS Dixon gave him the opportunity to inspect nuclear powered submarines and submarine tenders.
In fact, James wrote the epilogue to The Tooth and the Tail, an oral history of American Support Troops during the Vietnam War.
Giving hope to the hopeless
To this very day and despite the decades that have passed since he left home, James’ feelings of abandonment run deep. Yet the Navy veteran is finding ways to channel those feelings by giving the most hopeless and helpless animals a loving home.
“To give a critter a chance at life,” he says, “for I know what it feels [like] to be abandoned and be hungry. That is why I joined the Navy.”
These days the Vietnam veteran’s family includes Mara, whom he refers to as his “lady friend,” and her two rescued dogs, Dora and Mollie. When four of James’ own rescued pets died of old age, he knew it was time to adopt another dog.
“I needed to fill the void.”
From freezing in a drain pipe to a pup with purpose
James visited a local animal welfare organization, Logan’s Run Rescue. There he learned about their partnership with Pets for Patriots, which inspires veterans to adopt the most overlooked shelter dogs and cats in exchange for a range of benefits to make pet parenthood more affordable.
Through the rescue James met Willow, a then two year-old Jack Russell Terrier. She had been badly abused and left to die in a culvert with her puppies. Although their life circumstances were different, Willow’s story struck a nerve with the Vietnam veteran.
“Willow sort of reminds me of myself when I first retired from the Navy,” James recalls. “Frightened and unsure of myself.”
The Navy veteran was “going to save this animal one way or another,” and he quickly saw that Willow was going to need all of the love and devotion he and Mara could give her. James adopted Willow without hesitation, knowing from his own experiences that it would take a long time for the adult dog overcome her sad start in life.
Of love, toast and sausage
Willow’s homecoming has not been without its challenges.
The little dog’s prior neglect and likely abuse – she is terrified of men and loud noises – was at first “a nightmare” for James, who wanted nothing more than to shower his newest family member with love.
Willow refused to eat at first, and had to be hand fed. She eventually learned to take walks with the other two dogs in the family and is especially fond of Dora, their big yellow lab.
“Her favorite places are sitting on the couch with us watching TV and snuggling in bed with us at night,” says James, noting that her newest love is riding in the front seat of his Mustang.
To this day Willow still trembles, which James suspects may be some residual nerve damage as a result of whatever was done to her. But adopting the once-abandoned dog has enriched the Navy veteran’s life – even as he gives her the life she deserves and was once denied.
“She has given me a purpose,” he says.
They say time – and love – heal all wounds, and the latter will never be in short supply again for Willow.
“She’s definitely loved in this house,” says James. “Seeing her gradually come out of her shell is very rewarding. You can’t help but fall in love with her.”
Even Mara’s two dogs, both previous victims of abuse as well, have taken to Willow to varying degrees. Dora is her “best friend” and Molly “tolerates her,” but James observes that “in the end they are one happy group.”
Willow has come a long way from the day she was found nearly freezing to death in a North Carolina drain pipe.
“We have a morning ritual at breakfast,” James says, “everyone has toast and sausage.”
James found a way to turn his hard luck years into a productive and noble life, serving his country and saving the lives of unwanted critters in his community.
“It gives me a good feeling to know I’ve done something good,” he says, “[that I] have saved an animal.”