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Aug. 17, 2022

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Pets for Patriots links vets, furry pals

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Veteran Donald Rhodes adopted Yankee, a rescue dog, through the low-cost pets-for-patriots program from Harford County, Connecticut, animal shelter. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun/TNS) (Kenneth K.
Veteran Donald Rhodes adopted Yankee, a rescue dog, through the low-cost pets-for-patriots program from Harford County, Connecticut, animal shelter. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun/TNS) (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun) Photo Gallery

BALTIMORE — When Stacey Martin, an Army sergeant, gets home at night, she finds Autumn, her dog, by the door, sitting at attention — except for her tail, which quivers in anticipation. Martin can hardly wait, either. It’s a treasured time for both.

“I can have the crappiest day at work, but when I walk in she’s so excited to see me,” said Martin, 26, of Belcamp, Md. “Having an animal love you unconditionally is a feeling like no other. When I’m depressed, Autumn picks up on it, gravitates toward me and licks my face. In some of the worst times of my life, she has brought out those emotions that are near and dear to my heart.”

That’s the goal of Pets for Patriots, a national organization that networks with animal shelters to promote adoptions of homeless dogs and cats by military personnel, both active-duty and retired. Four years ago, while stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Martin and her sergeant husband, Antonio, learned of the program and found Autumn at the Humane Society of Harford County in Fallston. Participants in Pets for Patriots receive adoption discounts, $150 gift cards for pet supplies and, sometimes, veterinarian markdowns as incentives.

“The gift card helped so much but, honestly, we would have taken Autumn anyway,” said Martin.

Since 2010, Pets for Patriots — the brainstorm of a Long Island woman — has found homes for more than 3,700 animals (85 percent dogs, 15 percent cats) with military personnel.

“One Memorial Day, I had an epiphany while washing dishes,” said founder Beth Zimmerman, 59, of Long Beach, N.Y. “I thought about veterans and the issues they face, and the plight of (homeless) animals that are hard to adopt.”

Matching the two wrongs, she mused, would make a right.

“Those serving in the military often move around to places where they have no family or friends — only the pet that they’ve adopted,” Zimmerman said. “It’s a critical bond.”

At the same time, “veterans who are separated from the service can find it hard to adjust to civilian life. They may lack the clarity of purpose they had in the military — and caring for a pet helps them feel like they’ve got that structure, and a buddy, back again.

“Some veterans tell us that, no matter how much they love their families, they only tell their secrets to their dog or cat. There are some things they just can’t talk to other people about, and that release is extremely important to their mental health. It’s like four-legged therapy.”

All Pets for Patriots requires is that adoptees bear some baggage — be it as an older animal, one with special needs or another issue that, for some reason, has kept them on a shelter’s shelf. There’s a reason for that provision.

“Many veterans dealing with physical or emotional challenges see a reflection of their own issues in the animals they adopt,” said Zimmerman. “We had a young airman who returned home from deployment to find that his wife had left him. (Eventually) he went to a shelter and found a dog, cowering in a cage, who’d also been abandoned. The two of them understood each other.”

Clients have acknowledged that embracing a pet has saved not only the animal’s life, but their own as well. Like the Air Force veteran in Illinois who confessed that adopting a disfigured dog named Thunder saved her from committing suicide.

Donald Rhodes recalled the day his Abingdon family browsed the raucous aisles at the same Harford County shelter.

“One dog, a boxer mix, jumped against the side of his cage to greet us,” said Rhodes, 52. “Our daughter, Layla, looked at him and said, ‘Calm down. Sit.’ So he did.”

And Rhodes, who’d spent 24 years in the military, thought: any dog who will take orders from an 8-year-old is the dog for me.

They adopted the pooch through Pets for Patriots. Seven years later, Yankee — once emaciated and abused — is a strapping and beloved 110-pound house pet who can read Rhodes like a book.

“Yankee cues into my mood routinely,” his owner said. “If my wife and I are having a dispute, he gets concerned and tries to calm us down. He’ll nuzzle up and lick your hand.”

Not until he retired from the service did Rhodes get the urge to adopt. A communications technician, he logged 14 years active duty in the Air Force and 10 more in the Air National Guard. He’s now an engineering contractor for the Army at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Since Yankee’s arrival, the Rhodes have rescued yet another, a Chihuahua named Lilly. Guess who’s alpha dog?

“Lilly rules the roost,” Rhodes said. “Yankee could swallow her if he chose to, but when she calls his bluff, he acts like a scaredy-cat.”

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