Trying to adjust to a civilian lifestyle became a painful challenge for Timothy, a Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient whose only refuge lay with the many dogs and cats that he brought into his life after the war. Even now, he describes those animals as “the only friends I had.”
Years later, Timothy has found solace and comfort again in Melanie, an intensely caring and loyal Great Pyrenees adopted through Pets for Patriots’ partnership with the Humane Society of West Michigan. Weighing in at around 100 pounds and fully devoted to her new guardian, Melanie has proven to be the perfect companion for this Marine Corps veteran.
Visions of war brought to life
In 1964 when he turned 18, Timothy knew he was going to join the military.
“I didn’t have a bad house or a bad family or anything – I just had to go,” he says, adding that he chose the Marine Corps because “they were supposed to be the toughest.”
Decades later, the veteran has distinct memories of looking at himself in full dress uniform.
“I was standing there in a uniform, all decorated like I was in a war. It looked real,” he recalls. “When I got decorated in the Marine Corps and I was standing there, I remembered that.”
The teen saw the Marines as an opportunity to travel and see other countries.
“I’ve always been a wanderer, since I’ve been a kid,” he says, “You learn a lot that way.”
After graduating from boot camp in San Diego, Timothy went on to spend a year at Camp Pendleton and was sent to Vietnam for the first time in June of 1965.
As a Marine infantryman he spent much of his time patrolling “back in the mountains,” searching for trails and tunnels used by enemy forces. He didn’t see too much action, however, since the enemy “went around to fight with the Army” instead of the Marines, who were known for their tenacity and ruthlessness.
“Everyone [in the Marine Corps] is a rifle person, no matter if you work in an office or not,” he explains. “If they need you, you’re right there with a gun. So I don’t care if you’re a typist in the office, if they’re short, you’re trained to go off and do the same thing. That’s all you are, is a trained killer.”
Timothy’s platoon returned to Vietnam in August of the same year, at which point he took part in Operation Starlite, the first truly big battle of the war. It was during this operation that Timothy was shot.
“I thought [the bullet] bounced off,” he recalls. “It feels like you get hit with a sledgehammer. Later someone told me I was bleeding. I was walking wounded.”
After the war and during his 20s, Timothy continued his wandering ways and managed to visit every state in the United States except for Oregon and Alaska. He “got well-educated,” thanks to the diversity of people he met and experiences he had, but his service in Vietnam took a very heavy toll.
“You could drink water out of a river and upstream 10 miles they dumped this stuff,” he says, “[and] you could have drank it.”
A Purple Heart veteran in search of stability
Upon returning from Vietnam, Timothy fell into a pattern of reckless behavior, finding himself “in car wreck after car wreck.” As a result of his Marine training, these accidents “didn’t even phase me. They train us not to fear anything, so a car wreck was nothing.”
The Marine Corps veteran holds even more chilling memories of playing Russian roulette; pressing the gun against his head, but ultimately deciding not to pull the trigger.
“I figured the gun was empty,” he says, “So I aimed it at the floor and I blew a hole in the floor. Got me to fear guns again. Things like that, you have to work out.”
Other aspects of Marine training stuck with Timothy long after he returned from Vietnam.
“After I got out, I didn’t take my clothes off for probably 10 years when I slept. You gotta be ready – don’t be caught with your pants down,” he shares. “And at night, if someone hit you, you gotta have your shoes on. So I couldn’t get out of that. I stayed dressed every night and people didn’t understand all that stuff. My parents had a hard time.”
An everyday life of stability and routine seemed impossible for Timothy, who was unable to keep a job for longer than a week or two and wound up trying his hand at nearly “everything.” He was a machinist, a trader, a glazier…the list goes on.
“I’d work a week and then get a job at some other place and go over there for a week and quit. I couldn’t hold a job.”
The Purple Heart veteran did find calm and security in the many pets that he adopted over the years, but was devastated when they were taken away from him.
“I had a white cat that I found and took it home with me, and that cat, when I came home, he’d wait for me and get on my shoulders when I sat in my chair and lay on my shoulders. He’d take his paw and rub it on my face. They got rid of that cat,” he says sadly – “they” referring to his ex-wife and her mother.
The Marine’s deep connection with animals seems to have been forged in part by instincts he developed in Vietnam.
“Being in the jungle so long, [I] picked up a lot of animal instincts. Senses like them. It’s like you can talk to them and stuff. It’s weird,” he says, “I know what they want… But we don’t use those senses because we don’t live like animals in the jungle. I never got to take a shower, clean up. I wore the same clothes all the time and they were rotting off of me. I mean, that’s how bad of shape I was in. I ate with my hands. I remember maggots in the food, and I was throwing them out and eating the food because I was hungry. You just…think differently. You do stuff you would never think of doing.”
A dog to “love you the way you are”
Already sharing their home with 10 cats, Timothy and his current wife Loree decided to expand their family by adopting four-year-old Melanie in March of 2014. The decision to adopt a dog was ultimately a very simple one.
“I just like having company,” says Timothy. “They love you the way you are.”
Melanie’s backstory remains a mystery. She was abandoned in another state and transferred to the Humane Society of West Michigan, but Timothy thinks she may have once been a leader dog for the blind. Melanie was already well-trained and instantly attentive to her new guardians. Timothy’s brother has a leader dog, and they believe that Melanie shows many of the same qualities.
The couple suspects Melanie had been abused, as well.
“That dog was so abused when we got her home here,” Timothy recalls. “There was a little bit of snow left, she ran and rolled in that snow trying to clean herself. They had to have kept her in a wire cage because her back teeth were all worn out and the vet said that’s from leaving her in those cages, and they try to get out and chew on the [metal] bars and it wears out their back teeth. You don’t ever lock a dog up like that.”
Timothy remembers the first moments with his new best friend, in large part because “she came right over and didn’t want us to leave.” The big dog was fearful as well, which the Vietnam veteran thinks was a result of prior abuse.
“She shook like a leaf,” he says. “We took her to the vet and she just shook. So we knew she was abused or something. It took us a couple months and she had to get nerve pills, [she’s] pretty normal now.”
Adopting a true blue friend
Since her adoption, Melanie’s impact on Timothy has been tremendous.
“She gets me up walking and stuff where I wouldn’t,” he says. “I just don’t like to be around a lot of people. So if I take the dog with me, I stay away from people and have a friend.”
Still unable to sleep at night, Timothy often passes those hours lying down beside Melanie, who seems to truly enjoy his presence. And when he falls down as a result of his neuromuscular difficulties, Melanie always lies next to him until he’s able to stand again.
“That’s a friend,” he says proudly.
When asked if he would encourage other veterans to adopt companion animals, Timothy’s response is immediate and positive.
“Get one,” he urges. “Especially these young guys, you know? You’ve fought through a lot of it by the time you’re my age, but I still have problems.”
Timothy believes a companion pet is important for another reason as well: a dog or cat offers a different kind of friendship than another person, and may help a troubled veteran see himself or herself more clearly. Being only around other veterans, Timothy concedes that you might not know “you’re messed up because you’re all the same.”
Yet something as simple as an adopted dog – or cat – can change everything.
“A dog will help you, because people don’t know. You can sit there and tell the dog your problems when nobody else will listen or they don’t understand. They listen, but they don’t understand,” he says, noting the magic of pets: “They make you forget.”
Pets for Patriots serves veterans of all eras and all armed forces; learn about our companion pet adoption program for veterans.