Al was a newly widowed veteran in desperate need of love and comfort. He found what he needed in a shelter dog who gave him a new sense of purpose after his wife had died.
Just call me sweetheart
Al served in the United States Navy from 1951 to 1954, during the Korean War. He was selected to receive training as a Hospital Corpsman out of Bainbridge, Maryland, and subsequently served at a naval hospital in Chelsea, Massachusetts where he was selected to become qualified in Spectacle Dispensing.
The young veteran returned to Great Lakes to work in the eye clinic and then applied for the Fleet Marine Force in Maryland. During the last leg of his tour he was assigned to Florida and, following completion of his service, received an honorable discharge from the Navy.
While being attached to the Fleet Marine is considered sea duty, Al never went overseas. After his tour of duty, he came home to Detroit and spent the rest of his civilian career as an optician.
“Never made a lot of money,” Al reflects, “but was never without a job for more than a few days at time if I changed jobs.”
The Navy veteran married, had two children, and spent the next 23 years of his life living in various cities in both Michigan and Iowa. However, during that time his wife disappeared and they were subsequently divorced.
“I had my boy with me at the time,” Al recalls. “I came back to Michigan to visit my mom and my best friend, who was the brother of my high school sweetheart. Six months after that I married my high school sweetheart. We ended up having 34 years of good marriage.”
Al and his second wife, Patricia, had always been animal lovers.
“Patricia and I have always had animals. At one time we had three dogs and four cats and loved them all. We had to give up the cats because Patty was allergic. All the dogs had long and healthy lives, but we lost the last one in 2012,” Al says.
It would be at least another two years til Al and Patricia could once again enjoy the love and companionship of a dog.
In the interim the couple moved to a new home where they initially thought pets were permitted, but found out “too late” that it was not the case. They moved once again and made adopting a companion pet a top priority, although Al had some concerns: he was not as physically able as he used to be and Patricia was not well.
But things changed, and Patricia convinced Al that it was time.
“She was so upset and lonely for an animal I decided we would break down and have one,” Al says.
The Navy veteran found out about Pets for Patriots and our companion pet adoption program from an upstairs neighbor and fellow veteran, Daniel. Just months earlier the Air Force veteran adopted a dog named Edison through our charity, and thought it would be good for Al as well, particularly the benefits we offer to make pet guardianship more affordable and achievable for military veterans.
“Our income was very limited and I heard they gave us a little break,” Al says. “I considered that as an incentive and the fact that Dan told me how wonderful these people are, and how good they are with the animals.”
Al and Patricia visited the Michigan Humane Society’s Sterling Heights adoption center, one of several primary and satellite Michigan Humane Society locations that partner with us to help military veterans adopt companion pets. There they met Sugar Plum, a then two year-old Shepherd.
The couple fell in love with her instantly.
“She had been abused,” he recalls. “She had worms, heartworms, [was] undernourished, and all sorts of things, but they took care or most of it. She was getting better all the time. She’s in good health now. She’s the sweetest thing I have ever met in my whole life.”
It was Halloween when Al and Patricia officially adopted Sugar Plum. Named Sia at the shelter, the pair soon renamed their gentle charge Sugar Lump – much like the cubes of sugar Al remembered from childhood – because the big dog was just so sweet. However, Al prefers to call the big dog Sugar Plum.
“We adopted Sugar Plum as soon as we were able,” Al says. “Thank G-d we did. My wife wasn’t well at that point.”
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother in arms
The Navy veteran remembers how easily Sugar Plum made herself at home.
“The first day we brought her home, she walked into the house, looked around, jumped on the couch and fell asleep,” he says. “She knew it was her house.”
Al is in his eighties and while having a companion dog has been good for his health, his upstairs neighbor pitches in on a regular basis when needed.
“I started walking her and it has helped out my health,” he shares, adding, “I haven’t been able to walk her as much as I want, but Daniel takes her out.”
What started out as a neighborly tip from one veteran to another has since blossomed into an amazing friendship, and none too soon. Tragically, Patricia passed away several months after she and Al adopted Sugar Plum. In despair, Al turned to his newfound friend Daniel for help.
“When my wife passed away, Dan had her in his apartment for a week and took care of her and relieved the stress so I didn’t have to worry about her at all,” Al says. “He loves her as much as I do.”
The veterans and their adopted dogs have even developed certain routines.
“Whenever she goes out for a walk with Dan and the other dog, they both pop their nose into the apartment when they come back and look at me, and I reach in the jar and they both get their treats,” Al shares with a smile in his voice. “Edison won’t leave the apartment until he gets his treat.”
The Navy veteran has nothing but high praise for his neighbor and friend.
“Dan is a wonderful man,” Al says. “When he meets someone, anything they need, he takes care of. He’s a mechanic, and engineer, and an ex fly-boy.”
For the love of dog
Patricia’s death has been hard on Al; thankfully his sweet shelter dog gives him a renewed sense of purpose and well being.
“Thank G-d for Sugar, she is my help and my strength. When I’m feeling low, I snuggle with her and take her for walks.”
Although unsure that he was ready for pet adoption at the time, Al has no regrets about adopting Sugar Plum. The shelter dog came into his life just when he would need her most and Al is grateful to have adopted her through Pets for Patriots.
“It’s been a real good experience,” he says. “They have been wonderful to me. I really appreciate all the help they have given me.”
Shortly after Patricia’s death, Al experienced a “traumatic” drop in his income. He needed help covering basic expenses for Sugar Plum, but was too proud to ask. During one of several calls following his wife’s death we learned that he needed a ‘helping paw’ to care for his beloved dog.
“I am not rich and I have to scrape to pay the rent, it’s not cheap,” he shares, “but I wouldn’t want to move because I would lose contact with my dear friend Danny, and it would be hard on my dog. Things have worked out because of Pets for Patriots.”
Part of our work is providing temporary assistance to veterans who adopted pets through our program and are experiencing short term financial hardship. We use donations to help these veterans with pet food and other essentials, and through our veterinary fund help defray costs of extraordinary medical care. Our goal is to keep person and pet together, and prevent the animal’s surrender back to the shelter.
While Al is appreciative of our support, he is rightfully most grateful to Sugar Plum.
“She made life worthwhile for myself and for Pat when she was so ill, and needed to have company while I was out of the house,” Al says.
Sugar Plum still gives that same company, companionship and love to Al today.
“I am much better off when she is with me,” he confides. “She seems to know when I am not feeling happy, and she will come up and kind of put her head on me and let me know that ‘things are okay, dad.'”