For years Ashley has been coping with the aftermath of crippling trauma and depression arising from her military service. Her road to healing started when she began volunteering at her local humane society shortly after separating from service.
Military sexual trauma
Ashley’s eight-year military career started with a lot of promise. She was a member of the Marine Corps band, which felt natural to her after being involved in music since middle school. Other responsibilities included security training, guard post duties, and related tasks.
During the course of Ashley’s service she was stationed in Japan. She enjoyed being immersed in a culture so different from her own.
But it was during this year-long deployment that Ashley experienced military sexual trauma (MST). The term describes any sexual contact against a person’s will.
Ashley pressed charges against the Marine who assaulted her and “spiraled into this horrible depression” that impacts her life to this day.
“I struggled hard with depression,” Ashley shares. “I fought to get my VA benefits and once it went through, they actually rated me as unemployable, so that allowed me to have the time to really focus on myself.”
However, life did not get any easier after Ashley separated from service in 2011. She went through a grueling divorce, and her son and daughter currently live with their father.
Long and winding road
Perhaps Ashley’s first job prior to enlistment – working in a pet store – was a sign that animals would always figure prominently in her life.
During Ashley’s long healing journey she discovered that working with animals in need gave her a new sense of purpose. She started volunteering at her local shelter soon after her military separation.
“And then I started volunteering at the humane society here in Richland County, just as a regular volunteer, and I did that for years. And then I started asking, once I had been there for a while, what the process was to be a humane agent.”
Little did the Marine Corps veteran know that her volunteerism would put her on a path to better manage the affects of her trauma and depression.
Saving pets while saving herself
Prior to training as a volunteer humane agent Ashley was a general volunteer at the the Humane Society of Richland County.
Since 2012, the shelter has partnered with Pets for Patriots to help the most overlooked dogs and cats in their care find loving homes with veterans.
As a volunteer humane agent Ashley investigates cases of animal neglect, abuse, and cruelty. She is considered a law enforcement officer and spends every Tuesday responding to calls with another agent.
“Our job is to investigate abuse [and] neglect cases, anything that ends up going to court, which we really try not to do,” she explains. “Essentially, we just want to educate people about the proper care of their animals. We don’t like to take them. Like, that’s absolutely the last resort, unless it’s a really horrible case.”
Because it is a volunteer position, Ashley helps these animals without pay because she genuinely enjoys it. In addition, she has become the go-to person for handling reptile calls.
The Marine Corps veteran remembers one particular hoarding case in which an owner abandoned geckos and snakes. The responding humane agents called Ashley to help out because they were not sure what to do next.
Being able to help animals helps Ashley cope with her struggles with trauma and depression.
“I’ve been hospitalized multiple times. It took me a long time to get to where I feel – I don’t want to say ‘normal’ – but I’m living a really good quality of life, and I can appreciate my life,” Ashley says. “And a lot of that has to do with being a humane agent. It gave me a purpose.”
Veteran embraces life in spite of trauma and depression
Ashley has always wanted to help animals in need. As a child, she wanted to be a veterinarian, but realized there was a lot of schooling involved.
Still, Ashley recognizes that her work – and her life – have value.
“I’m doing something that benefits society and other living things,” the Marine veteran shares.
Ashley initially found out about Pets for Patriots when she started volunteering at the Humane Society of Richland County. She was happy to hear about the program because she likes supporting other veterans and being involved with a nonprofit organization that aligns with her values.
So in August of 2014, Ashley adopted Sully, a then 10 year-old dog she met while volunteering. He was a nearly deaf, heartworm-positive Australian shepherd mix who had trouble finding a home due to his age and medical needs.
Ashley knew that Sully did not have much time left, but wanted to give him a loving home just the same.
“I have a heart for the harder-to-adopt-out animals,” she says.
Sully passed away only three months after his adoption, but had a great life during his too-short time with Ashley.
The heart knows what the heart needs
It would be some time until Ashley opened her heart and home to another pet in need. Still, her volunteerism at the shelter helped her better manage the trauma and depression that still impacts her life in ways large and small.
Then one day, two other humane agents brought a severely underweight Mastiff into the shelter. Sif was a mere 95 pounds and was terrified of people. She had been abandoned in a house after her owners moved out.
The Marine Corps veteran took one look at Sif’s face and knew there was a connection.
“I walked in like, the day after we pulled her, and I was like, ‘That dog is gonna come home with me,’” Ashley recalls.
So the pair worked together one-on-one almost every day for months to help Sif face her fear of humans.
In October, 2018, Ashley officially adopted Sif through our partnership with the shelter.
Sif the warrior
Ashley believes that Sif – named after a Norse goddess, and female warrior from the Marvel comics series – was bred improperly at her previous home. She suspects this mistreatment may have caused some of the big dog’s fears.
In addition, Ashley noticed that the big dog was “really confused by affection,” perhaps because she had never been shown any love. As a survivor of trauma and depression, she felt tremendous empathy for her big, warrior dog.
“She wasn’t in the right household and may have developed defensive or aggressive tendencies,” she says, “And instead of dealing with it, they just left her there.”
Luckily Sif is now spayed, weighs a normal 120 pounds, and is perfectly healthy and happy. She has a big backyard where she can “gallop like a horse.”
And despite her large size, Sif loves to sit in Ashley’s lap.
“She’s my shadow now. She doesn’t realize how big she is,” the Marine Corps veteran says. “She’s a lapdog, which is a huge difference since I first saw her and met her. It’s completely different.”
More importantly, Ashley says person and pet have helped the other learn to trust again.
“She has helped me grow emotionally, I guess, in a way that I didn’t know that I could,” she says. “Just having time with another being that you know loves you unconditionally and can’t hurt you.”
A voice for the voiceless
Ashley has witnessed many cases of irresponsible pet guardianship in her volunteer role as a humane officer. Some people have good intentions when they adopt a companion pet. But they often fail to do the necessary research to understand what is involved.
“So we see a lot of times…where people will get an animal and then not properly raise it and then can’t control it, or don’t know what to do with it, or they don’t understand the costs, like veterinary costs and stuff.”
In some ways Ashley considers herself relatively new to pet adoption. While she had family dogs growing up and dogs during the course of her marriage, she never felt particularly attached to any of them.
All that changed when she adopted first Sully, and now Sif. Still, she considers herself agnostic as to whether she prefers dogs or cats.
“I’ve since found out that I’m neither a dog or a cat person,” she explains. “I’m a person with a thousand pictures of their dog on their phone, and I’ve got a pop socket with her face on it. I bought her a doggie sweater, which she loves.”
Ashley and Sif have helped each other come to terms with their pasts. Now in turn, the young veteran would like to help others who may be in similar situations. She realizes that this means sharing her MST survival story, and talking about her trauma and depression.
“I would rather do that and have the possibility that it might help someone else,” she says. “I mean, it doesn’t really hurt to talk about it anymore.”