GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – The numbers are startling: an estimated 22 American Veterans commit suicide every day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
One nationwide program, offered in West Michigan, is working to help veterans struggling with life after combat while saving animals likely to be euthanized. Since 2009, Pets for Patriots has helped more than 700 Veterans find their pets, including 21 adoptions from the Humane Society of West Michigan.
Two Veterans from Grand Rapids chose to serve, and once they returned home, their newest family members—two dogs that needed to be rescued—found them.
John Barber went into the U.S. Navy after convincing his father to sign boot camp papers as a junior in high school.
Steven Joling enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. He moved up as an air traffic controller and hoped to make it a career—a promising future, until he was accidentally given too many typhoid shots in one year. Steven almost died.
“You think that when you go into the military that they’re going to take care of their own, but it seems like they don’t really,” said Joling. “Once you’re done it’s like they leave you alone.”
So what happens after your service?
“I’ve had a whole bunch of foster kids and now I don’t have any,” said Joling. “So when I came home recently and there’s no one home, it gets kind of strange.”
Who do you turn to once you return home?
“They say that there’s any average (22) Veterans commit suicide every day in the United States,” said Joling. “I think that’s a lot to do with the fact that they don’t have anyone else to give to, and as you give, so you receive. They say that every eight seconds an animal is put down in the United States because there’s no one to take them.”
So many people came and went from Steven’s life in the military, eventually leaving a void. Lassie is Steven’s newest family member. Now four months after adoption, Lassie is not going anywhere. She’s home.
“It’s a real opening up of experience: it gets you out of the house, it’s gives you a reason to go for a walk,” said Joling.
John lost his wife to cancer. Then his granddaughter helped him find his dog Candy at the Humane Society of West Michigan.
“My favorite thing is she listens to me,” said John.
John and Steven adopted Lassie and Candy through Pets for Patriots.
“You could really save two lives with one adoption,” said Beth Zimmerman, Pets for Patriots founder.
It’s a national program that helps Veterans adopt cats and dogs from trusted shelters, including two in West Michigan: Humane Society of West Michigan and the Calhoun County Animal Shelter.
“Our mission really is to give love and fidelity and loyalty to veterans who served our country, through companion-pet adoption, but to help make those adoptions affordable and enduring over the life of the pet,” said Zimmerman.
The program offers financial help to take care of the pet, and ongoing follow-up between the Veteran and staff, to help make sure their adoption is going well.
“I’ve always had a dog, it’s just, it’s a part of me,” said John. “But this one has really come a long ways.”
As for Candy and Lassie, and their Veterans, they are home.
“They talk about saving the life of an animal, it may save your own life,” said Steven.
There are qualifications for both Veterans and their pets. Qualifications include adopting cats and dogs that are most overlooked: or those that are two years or older, have special needs, or are 40 pounds or larger.
Pets for Patriots has 11 trusted animals shelters across Michigan. To see where the program is offered and what it takes to qualify, see their website.