PTSD and me
James is a Marine Corps veteran with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) who for much of his post-military life relied on the kindness of loved ones. One day he decided to pay it forward by saving the life of a love-starved shelter dog no one wanted.
“I have been a Marine who has gone through life with everyone helping him after serving,” he says, “regardless of my inability to be around a large group of people, [or] being overly alert or distant.”
Despite these and other life challenges, James was slow to recognize that he had PTSD. He describes a situation in which he was the last to know, or at least the last to accept that he experienced serious psychological trauma that demanded his attention.
“I’ve always had someone around me that was aware of my symptoms except me,” he shares. “I had my ex-girlfriend who did everything for me. All I had to do was pay the bills. She was well aware of my PTSD way before I was. A beautiful person in my life.”
James enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1994 as part of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines. In 1995 he was deployed overseas as part of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) based out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. The unit is known as a rapid response force called upon to conduct amphibious and maritime operations under the most adverse conditions.
Members of this unit were involved in the pre-dawn rescue of Air Force Captain Scott O’Grady from Bosnia, days after his plane was shot down. Yet it was a very different experience that stands out most in James’ mind.
“The most memorable time I can say is stepping on the yellow foot prints at Marine recruit training on Parris Island.”
The yellow footprints are a storied tradition for young recruits, symbolizing their first steps towards becoming a United States Marine.
To love and be loved
Long since separated from service, James is looking to put his life back together. He has come to terms with his PTSD and is working hard to confront his struggles in positive, healthful ways. He moved to the Philadelphia area and started college, though still shuns large crowds and other stress-inducing situations.
Being in the military often means shouldering tremendous responsibility, even at a relatively young age. Our nation expects men and women who may just be barely out of high school to make – and act upon – life or death decisions, under extremely difficult conditions and in hostile environments.
Many veterans feel adrift when they separate from service and re-enter civilian life; the demands placed upon them pale in comparison to what they experienced in the military.
James felt a bit wayward as well, and after some soul-searching decided it was the right moment in his life to adopt a companion pet.
“I really needed something in my life that would make me responsible,” he says, “and someone who would give love unconditionally.”
The Marine veteran’s journey took him to Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), which waives pet adoption fees for veterans who adopt through the shelter’s partnership with Pets for Patriots.
Hold that dog
It was an early April day when James went to PAWS and met Margo, a then one year-old, 40-pound Pit Bull terrier mix. Due in large part to her being a “Bully breed” no one had looked at her and she had no prospects for a loving home.
Margo’s $200+ adoption fee was more than James could manage on his pension, but the adoption counselor working with him thought the two made a great match. She told him about Pets for Patriots and all of the benefits he would receive if he adopted through our partnership with PAWS, including ongoing discounted veterinary care. Nearby Philadelphia Animal Hospital is one of our many excellent veterinary partners, and extends an ongoing 30% discount to James and other veterans who adopt through Pets for Patriots.
James applied to our program and, owing to some of his challenges, took some time to get his eligibility documents to us in order to complete his application. In the meantime, PAWS arranged for James to foster Margo.
Foster-to-adopt arrangements are very common at shelters and rescues. They help move animals into prospective homes, create space for new animals to enter the shelter and be saved, and give person and pet a chance to make sure they are a good fit for one another.
Once James was approved by Pets for Patriots he converted his foster contract into a final adoption. Margo – since renamed Layla – was officially home.
It’s all about love
The Marine Corps veteran is profoundly passionate about his new best friend. He helped her through an initial bout of separation anxiety, in part with the help of an article authored by dog training expert Andrea Arden, who serves on our Board of Directors.
Like other veterans who have adopted dogs or cats through our charity James discovered that by helping Layla overcome her emotional challenges he was helping himself, too. Sometimes she does this just by demanding he focus on her instead of on himself.
“[I love] the way she looks for my attention,” he says, “if I have a guest or if I’m on the phone. For her it becomes the ‘Layla Show.'”
The pair go nearly everywhere together that companion pets are permitted. Since James does not have a car, errands are done on foot. One of their favorite places to go is their local PETCO store, where the two go shopping with the contribution from our Veterans’ Pet Food Bank Program, which helps defray the cost of food and other essentials for the animals adopted through our work.
Every day it seems that James is more in love with his four-legged battle buddy, and for her part Layla is gaining confidence and realizing that she and James are family.
“Everything is awesome,” James says. “This girl rocks.”