For many years Dustin did not think of himself as a veteran, despite having served in the Army. Loss and major life changes further challenged his identity as a veteran, and crippled him with depression and anxiety.
It took an inspiring mentor – and loving shelter cats – to guide this Army veteran through his hardships.
Turning tragedy into action
Dustin recalls the morning of September 11, 2001 like it was yesterday.
“Everybody remembers where they were when 9/11 happened,” he says. “I happened to be a junior in high school in my chemistry class seeing the events happen.”
At the time, Dustin was a cadet in his high school’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program in Orlando, Florida. He had been considering a career in the military since earlier that year after his father lost his battle with lung cancer and emphysema.
“I wanted to make him proud and make something of his last name,” he shares.
The tragic events that took place on 9/11 only accelerated Dustin’s plan.
“I went to the recruiter’s office at the National Guard and said, ‘Where do I sign?’”
On September 27, 2001 and while still in high school, Dustin enlisted in the Army as a supply specialist through the Delayed Entry Program (DEP). The DEP allows prospective recruits to enlist, but delay reporting for duty for up to one year.
The young soldier completed basic training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma and transferred to Fort Lee, Virginia to train in his military occupation. Supply specialists have the critical responsibility to maintain all Army equipment and supplies.
The long road home
Dustin spent much of his time with the Florida National Guard on active duty. Shortly after arriving at his new command center, the young soldier’s company was activated to assist local communities after three hurricanes hit within a period of weeks.
Several months later the Guardsman was sent to Fort Stewart, Georgia, where his company underwent rigorous training to prepare for a possible overseas deployment.
But Dustin’s career path was changed by devastating news from home. His mother had been diagnosed with brain cancer.
At first, Dustin made the four-hour drive from Fort Stewart to Orlando every other weekend. But the time in between visits with his dying mother weighed on him.
“It was hard for me to be able to go to drill and be away at Fort Stewart knowing that my mom was battling a stronger battle than I would ever be,” he remembers.
Dustin eventually made the difficult decision to request a hardship discharge. He separated from service in 2004 so that he and his brothers could care for their ailing mother.
A change of scenery – and mindset
After his mother’s passing Dustin stayed in Florida for three more years, at which point he was ready for a change of venue.
“I couldn’t take it anymore,” he says. “I was working three jobs and trying to survive. I had no college degree, just a high school diploma.”
Dustin moved to New York to live with his older brother, Daniel, who encouraged the young veteran to enroll in college courses. That prompting would lead to one of Dustin’s greatest realizations about himself.
Despite serving his country honorably for more than three years, Dustin was uncomfortable referring to himself as a veteran. As a result he was hesitant to utilize services available to veterans, including those meant to help with the transition to civilian life.
“Veterans Day would come, and I’d be forever grateful to veterans, but didn’t consider myself a veteran,” he says. “I didn’t see war. I didn’t see losing my friends. I didn’t see any of that stuff.”
Many people think of veterans only as those individuals who serve in combat or deploy overseas. Yet every service member plays a vital role in maintaining the readiness and superiority of our nation’s military.
Dustin’s worldview changed when he started taking classes at a local community college. While there he met an instructor – a Navy veteran – who was able to change Dustin’s perception of his service.
“He was a huge motivator in developing my mindset as a veteran,” Dustin recalls. “He beat it down on me that I was a veteran.”
Together the pair created the first-ever veterans’ club at the college. Dustin’s mentor even convinced him to lead the group as its president.
“It was overwhelming, but also very eye-opening.”
Depression and anxiety take their toll
Dustin ultimately transferred to another college where he earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing. He got a job and put down roots in the Brockport area of upstate New York.
Yet despite the positive changes in his life, the loss of both of his parents had taken a big emotional toll. Dustin’s depression and anxiety worsened when he lost his job due to layoffs at his company. Life was getting harder for the young veteran to manage without the help of medication.
“My anxiety was super high. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life,” he says. “I didn’t know how I was going to make money, how I was going to pay my bills.”
Dustin’s doctor prescribed additional medication, but the Army veteran did not like to rely on it. He took the medication a couple of times – then something amazing happened. His roommate’s cat, Oatmeal, began loving on him as if sensing that Dustin needed a companion.
“He would give me kisses, lick my face, rub his face against my beard, using it as a scratching post,” he says. “He would come in bed and cuddle with me. My anxiety was lowered so much because every time Oatmeal came and snuggled with me it would put a smile on my face and put me in a better mood.”
The veteran credits Oatmeal for reducing his anxiety naturally, and without the aid of medication. Ironically Dustin always considered himself a “dog person.” Yet when faced with another big change in his life, the former soldier knew exactly what he had to do.
Accepting life as a veteran
Just as Dustin was getting attached to Oatmeal, his roommate decided she was planning to move and take the loving cat with her. The Army veteran started to become anxious again – and decided that it was time to adopt a companion pet of his own.
Dustin’s best friend had recently visited a local animal shelter and told him about a Pets for Patriots flyer he saw in the lobby. It was a big step for the young veteran to contact us to see if he met our eligibility requirements because for so long he did not consider himself a veteran.
“It took me seven or eight years to finally be okay with calling myself a veteran,” he says. “The real reason I reached out to Pets for Patriots was to begin to utilize the benefits available to me as a veteran.”
After contacting our office and feeling comfortable that he would qualify, Dustin visited Lollypop Farm Humane Society of Greater Rochester. Since 2011, the shelter has partnered with Pets for Patriots to help the most overlooked dogs and cats in its care find loving military homes. The organization offers veterans in our program a 50 percent adoption fee discount.
Dustin was specifically looking for a Maine Coon cat, which is a large long-haired breed. Due to their size and good-natured personalities they are often referred to as the “Gentle Giants” of the cat world.
The veteran met four year-old Wade, a large white Maine Coon cat, and was smitten instantly. What Dustin had not expected was to fall in love with one of Wade’s shelter mates as well.
Above and beyond
While playing with Wade – now named Reboot – Dustin spotted a small midnight black cat named T’Challa. The shy two year-old feline nestled his head into the veteran’s elbow crease and nervously tucked in his tail.
Dustin loved T’Challa’s “snuggly” personality. His loving and affectionate nature reminded him of Oatmeal, the cat who inspired him to adopt a stress-relieving companion of his own.
The veteran really wanted to adopt both cats, but he became worried about their availability since he had not yet completed his application to Pets for Patriots. He is grateful that we reached out to our partners at Lollypop Farm to advise them of his application status, and ask if they could hold Reboot and Wade for another couple of days.
Dustin is equally appreciative that Lollypop Farm was willing to hold the cats until everything was in order. The generous discount they extend to veterans in our program meant that Dustin could take both cats home for the cost of one adoption fee.
Shortly after Dustin adopted Reboot and T’Challa, the veteran learned his new feline companions would be getting an unexpected playmate. As luck would have it, Oatmeal would not be moving away as originally planned. Oatmeal’s care was entrusted to Dustin’s new roommate.
All three cats get along really well despite their differences.
“T’Challa and Oatmeal are like teenagers,” he describes, then adds, “Reboot is in his 20s.”
Reboot is a little bit older and seems to have “found himself.” He does his own thing and likes to explore his surroundings independently. He bonds quickly to new people and has taken a liking to Dustin’s new roommate.
T’Challa, on the other hand, gets anxious and looks for reassurance. He prefers to be close to Dustin when being introduced to new spaces or people. But for Dustin, it all started with Oatmeal.
“If it wasn’t for Oatmeal, I never would have thought about getting T’Challa or Reboot.”
In the end this veteran who never considered himself one came to terms with his military service. And this self-described dog guy found freedom from anxiety with a pair of shelter cats – plus one.