An IED blast nearly shattered a three-tour Navy veteran’s mind and body, but an adopted dog named Otis has proved to be the best medicine of all.
Nate is an active duty Navy corpsman who currently works at the Naval Hospital at Camp Lejeune. Earlier this year, he was honorably adopted by Otis, a two year-old stray American Bulldog-Labrador mix who seemed destined to be Nate’s new best friend.
Determined to serve and save the lives of fellow veterans
Growing up the son of an Air Force pilot, Nate gained extensive knowledge of what life in the military was like. He knew that someday he would enlist and, when he did, he wanted to become a Fleet Marine Force (FMF) Corpsman.
The road to becoming an FMF Corpsman is not an easy one. Because the Marines do not have their own medical staff, they must rely on the Navy for their medical care. A FMF Corpsman must complete both Navy and Marine Corps training, be fit enough to fulfill a Marine’s duties and highly knowledgeable in the practice of emergency medicine. Above all, an FMF Corpsman must be willing to risk his own life to save another’s life in combat situations.
When Nate enlisted in the Navy in 2007, the recruiter tried to discourage him from this demanding job. In the end Nate prevailed, and upon completing Field Medical Service School was assigned to the 2/9 (Second Battalion, Ninth Marine), an infantry battalion from Camp Lejeune.
Between 2007 and 2010, Nate deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan with the Marines. When asked to describe a favorite aspect or memory of his military service, Nate doesn’t hesitate.
“Without a doubt, the brotherhood of the Marines I served with. You take care of them, and they’ll take care of you,” he says. “They taught me how to do their job, and I shared my knowledge with them so they could take care of themselves if for any reason I wasn’t able to take care of them.”
Nate feels honored that Marines he served with in the past still call him today for medical advice.
“These are people you’ll never forget,” Nate says. “It’s an incredible feeling when you realize you’re a person they feel they still can rely upon.”
IED blast rocks Nate’s world and changes his life forever
Nate’s long-term plans for a long military career were shattered by an IED blast in Afghanistan during his third deployment.
In November 2010, Nate was on foot patrol behind a Marine truck when an IED exploded just 10 meters in front of him. Knocked out by the explosion, he suffered shrapnel wounds, a fractured spine and other injuries. In spite of it all, Nate regained consciousness, got up and treated the other injured Marines in the truck.
Due to a shortage of FMF Corpsmen, Nate remained in Afghanistan several months afterwards. He returned to the United States in March 2011, and underwent a number of surgeries to treat his injuries from the IED blast. It was during this time that Nate was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.
To aid his recovery, Nate applied for a service dog from a nonprofit organization. He bought a new home and had a fence built around the house in anticipation of getting a dog, but his application for a service dog was denied since the demand for service dogs far exceeds their supply.
Ever resourceful, Nate considered adopting a dog on his own and training it to become his service dog. While researching pet adoption, he learned about Pets for Patriots and themany benefits it offers veterans who save an eligible shelter dog or cat.
The combat veteran started to think that perhaps the right companion dog could help him heal.
Destined to be adopted, stray dog chooses Nate
In early 2013, Nate made the drive to Carteret Humane Society, the Pets for Patriots shelter partner closest to him. When he toured the kennels, all the dogs were jumping up and down and barking excitedly, except for one: a large, young American Bulldog-Labrador Retriever mix with one blue eye and one brown eye. Nate decided to take this dog for a walk. When they reached the shelter parking lot, the dog – found as a stray – instinctively headed straight for Nate’s car.
It seemed that Otis knew that he was destined to be with Nate even before Nate did.
The Navy veteran wanted to make sure that he adopted the right dog for his personality, so he returned the dog to its kennel and promised to return another day. He visited the shelter three more times before he was certain Otis was the right dog for him. When Nate opened the car door to take Otis home, the big dog jumped inside and sat in the front passenger seat, ready to go.
Like his owner, adopted dog is a natural life saver
Otis has enriched Nate’s life tremendously and has helped him cope with the symptoms of his PTSD.
“He’s gotten me out of my hermit mode,” says Nate.
Otis loves going for rides and sneaks into the car whenever he has the chance. He loves playing outdoors and being taken on walks, hikes and other adventures. At the end of the workday, Nate returns home to a “smiling dog who just wants to be with me.” The veteran is willing, even happy, to share his recliner with his 70-pound lapdog.
While Otis has not yet been formally trained as Nate’s service dog, he has proven ready to fulfill the role.
When Otis senses that Nate is having a bad day, he tries harder to engage him in play. Nate no longer needs a cane when hiking, since Otis will return to him – even when off-leash – if Nate needs help to stabilize his balance. The big dog will alert if Nate has a bad dream, as well: the veteran has woken up in the middle of the night to find Otis lying across his chest.
Nate highly recommends pet adoption to other active duty service members and veterans for its many health benefits.
“I’ve had to take a lot of medications,” he says, “especially pain medications, for my injuries and surgeries. Otis has turned out to be one of the best medicines for me.”
Nate also recommends joining Pets for Patriots to facilitate the pet adoption process. At the time he joined, Nate was experiencing computer problems, so he spoke with Pets for Patriots’ executive director Beth Zimmerman by phone.
“She was so helpful through the application process,” says the veteran. “And instead of having to pay $100 or more, I only had to pay around $35 to adopt Otis, thanks to Pets for Patriots.”
Later this year Nate will take medical retirement from the Navy. He intends to resume his education to become a physician’s assistant and possibly train Otis to be his service dog.