Those who serve with the U.S. armed forces often face difficult choices when they receive orders deploying them overseas. Not only do they have to be prepared to be parted from their loved ones and make arrangements regarding the storage of personal possessions, but they may also face the problem of finding proper caretakers for their pets — not all of those serving in the military have people they can leave their beloved animal companions with. Some locate appropriate foster families that will care for their pets until their return, some give up their critters for adoption at shelters, and some may even (as a last resort) turn them loose to fend for themselves.
(There are services that will assist those departing for overseas duty with the process of finding good temporary homes for their pets, such as "Dogs on Deployment" and "Guardian Angels for Soldier's Pet." If you're looking for a way to help those who are serving their country outside the U.S. and have room in your life for an extra cat or dog for the duration of someone's tour of duty, do consider opening your home to a military pet.)
One such tale about a military pet began hitting our inbox in August 2009, with our earliest online sighting of it dating to an August 2008 message board post:
They told me the big black Lab's name was Reggie as I looked at him lying in his pen. the shelter was clean, no-kill, and the people really friendly. I'd only been in the area for six months, but everywhere I went in the small college town, people were welcoming and open. Everyone waves when you pass them on the street.
But something was still missing as I attempted to settle in to my new life here, and I thought a dog couldn't hurt. Give me someone to talk to. And I had just seen Reggie's advertisement on the local news. The shelter said they had received numerous calls right after, but they said the people who had come down to see him just didn't look like "Lab people," whatever that meant. They must've thought I did.
But at first, I thought the shelter had misjudged me in giving me Reggie and his things, which consisted of a dog pad, bag of toys almost all of which were brand new tennis balls, his dishes, and a sealed letter from his previous owner. See, Reggie and I didn't really hit it off when we got home. We struggled for two weeks (which is how long the shelter told me to give him to adjust to his new home). Maybe it was the fact that I was trying to adjust, too. Maybe we were too much alike.
For some reason, his stuff (except for the tennis balls — he wouldn't go anywhere without two stuffed in his mouth) got tossed in with all of my other unpacked boxes. I guess I didn't really think he'd need all his old stuff, that I'd get him new things once he settled in. but it became pretty clear pretty soon that he wasn't going to.
I tried the normal commands the shelter told me he knew, ones like "sit" and "stay" and "come" and "heel," and he'd follow them — when he felt like it. He never really seemed to listen when I called his name — sure, he'd look in my direction after the fourth or fifth time I said it, but then he'd just go back to doing whatever. When I'd ask again, you could almost see him sigh and then grudgingly obey.
This just wasn't going to work. He chewed a couple shoes and some unpacked boxes. I was a little too stern with him and he resented it, I could tell. The friction got so bad that I couldn't wait for the two weeks to be up, and when it was, I was in full-on search mode for my cellphone amid all of my unpacked stuff. I remembered leaving it on the stack of boxes for the guest room, but I also mumbled, rather cynically, that the "darn dog probably hid it on me."
Finally I found it, but before I could punch up the shelter's number, I also found his pad and other toys from the shelter. I tossed the pad in Reggie's direction and he snuffed it and wagged, some of the most enthusiasm I'd seen since bringing him home. But then I called, "Hey, Reggie, you like that? Come here and I'll give you a treat." Instead, he sort of glanced in my direction — maybe "glared" is more accurate — and then gave a discontented sigh and flopped down. With his back to me.
Well, that's not going to do it either, I thought. And I punched the shelter phone number.
But I hung up when I saw the sealed envelope. I had completely forgotten about that, too. "Okay, Reggie," I said out loud, "let's see if your previous owner has any advice."
To Whoever Gets My Dog:
Well, I can't say that I'm happy you're reading this, a letter I told the shelter could only be opened by Reggie's new owner. I'm not even happy writing it. If you're reading this, it means I just got back from my last car ride with my Lab after dropping him off at the shelter. He knew something was different. I have packed up his pad and toys before and set them by the back door before a trip, but this time ... it's like he knew something was wrong. And something is wrong ... which is why I have to go to try to make it right.
So let me tell you about my Lab in the hopes that it will help you bond with him and he with you.
First, he loves tennis balls. the more the merrier. Sometimes I think he's part squirrel, the way he hoardes them. He usually always has two in his mouth, and he tries to get a third in there. Hasn't done it yet. Doesn't matter where you throw them, he'll bound after it, so be careful — really don't do it by any roads. I made that mistake once, and it almost cost him dearly.
Next, commands. Maybe the shelter staff already told you, but I'll go over them again: Reggie knows the obvious ones — "sit," "stay," "come," "heel." He knows hand signals: "back" to turn around and go back when you put your hand straight up; and "over" if you put your hand out right or left. "Shake" for shaking water off, and "paw" for a high-five. He does "down" when he feels like lying down — I bet you could work on that with him some more. He knows "ball" and "food" and "bone" and "treat" like nobody's business. I trained Reggie with small food treats. Nothing opens his ears like little pieces of hot dog.
Feeding schedule: twice a day, once about seven in the morning, and again at six in the evening. Regular store-bought stuff; the shelter has the brand.
He's up on his shots. Call the clinic on 9th Street and update his info with yours; they'll make sure to send you reminders for when he's due. Be forewarned: Reggie hates the vet. Good luck getting him in the car — I don't know how he knows when it's time to go to the vet, but he knows.
Finally, give him some time. I've never been married, so it's only been Reggie and me for his whole life. He's gone everywhere with me, so please include him on your daily car rides if you can. He sits well in the backseat, and he doesn't bark or complain. He just loves to be around people, and me most especially. Which means that this transition is going to be hard, with him going to live with someone new.
And that's why I need to share one more bit of info with you ...
His name's not Reggie.
I don't know what made me do it, but when I dropped him off at the shelter, I told them his name was Reggie. He's a smart dog, he'll get used to it and will respond to it, of that I have no doubt. but I just couldn't bear to give them his real name. For me to do that, it seemed so final, that handing him over to the shelter was as good as me admitting that I'd never see him again. And if I end up coming back, getting him, and tearing up this letter, it means everything's fine. But if someone else is reading it, well... well it means that his new owner should know his real name. It'll help you bond with him. Who knows, maybe you'll even notice a change in his demeanor if he's been giving you problems.
His real name is Tank. Because that is what I drive.
Again, if you're reading this and you're from the area, maybe my name has been on the news. I told the shelter that they couldn't make "Reggie" available for adoption until they received word from my company commander. See, my parents are gone, I have no siblings, no one I could've left Tank with ... and it was my only real request of the Army upon my deployment to Iraq, that they make one phone call to the shelter ... in the "event"... to tell them that Tank could be put up for adoption. Luckily, my colonel is a dog guy, too, and he knew where my platoon was headed. He said he'd do it personally. And if you're reading this, then he made good on his word.
Well, this letter is getting to downright depressing, even though, frankly, I'm just writing it for my dog. I couldn't imagine if I was writing it for a wife and kids and family. but still, Tank has been my family for the last six years, almost as long as the Army has been my family.
And now I hope and pray that you make him part of your family and that he will adjust and come to love you the same way he loved me.
That unconditional love from a dog is what I took with me to Iraq as an inspiration to do something selfless, to protect innocent people from those who would do terrible things ... and to keep those terrible people from coming over here. If I had to give up Tank in order to do it, I am glad to have done so. He was my example of service and of love. I hope I honored him by my service to my country and comrades.
All right, that's enough. I deploy this evening and have to drop this letter off at the shelter. I don't think I'll say another good-bye to Tank, though. I cried too much the first time. Maybe I'll peek in on him and see if he finally got that third tennis ball in his mouth.
Good luck with Tank. Give him a good home, and give him an extra kiss goodnight — every night — from me.
I folded the letter and slipped it back in the envelope. Sure I had heard of Paul Mallory, everyone in town knew him, even new people like me. Local kid, killed in Iraq a few months ago and posthumously earning the Silver Star when he gave his life to save three buddies. Flags had been at half-mast all summer.
I leaned forward in my chair and rested my elbows on my knees, staring at the dog.
"Hey, Tank," I said quietly. The dog's head whipped up, his ears cocked and his eyes bright.
C'mere boy." He was instantly on his feet, his nails clicking on the hardwood floor. He sat in front of me, his head tilted, searching for the name he hadn't heard in months.
"Tank," I whispered. His tail swished.
I kept whispering his name, over and over, and each time, his ears lowered, his eyes softened, and his posture relaxed as a wave of contentment just seemed to flood him. I stroked his ears, rubbed his shoulders, buried my face into his scruff and hugged him.
"It's me now, Tank, just you and me. Your old pal gave you to me." Tank reached up and licked my cheek. "So whatdaya say we play some ball? His ears perked again. "Yeah? Ball? You like that? Ball?" Tank tore from my hands and disappeared in the next room.
And when he came back, he had three tennis balls in his mouth.
As to the core question of whether it's a true story, accepting it as literally true requires the reader to believe in a chain of improbable circumstances: that a no-kill shelter would agree to serve indefinitely as an unpaid kennel service, that a dog owner would turn over his pet to the long-term (and possibly permanent) care of others without telling anyone its real name, and that a dog's adoptive owner would accept a "sealed letter from his previous owner" and simply toss it aside without bothering to open or read it. This string of contrivances smacks more of a fictional plot device than a literal account of a real-life occurrence.
Moreover, none of the verifiable details checks out as given in the narrative. Many different web sites record and honor the names of all U.S. service personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we could find no one by the name of Paul Mallory listed among the casualties on any of them (including the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count's iCasualties.org and the Washington Post's Faces of the Fallen), nor could we turn up any confirmatory news account of the death of a U.S. serviceman named Paul Mallory.
Even if we proceed on the assumption that "Paul Mallory" is a pseudonym, the details still don't check out. The narrative describes Reggie's original owner as having posthumously received the Silver Star after being killed in Iraq, as having never been married, and as having no living parents, siblings, or other relatives with whom he could have left his dog while he was deployed overseas. We meticulously checked the Silver Star database at the HomeofHeroes.com web site and located obituaries for every single U.S. service member (from all branches) who was listed there as having posthumously received that award in connection with his service in Iraq, and every single such recipient was described in his obituary as having left behind some combination of parents, siblings, wives, and children — not one of those fallen heroes was unmarried with no living parents or siblings.
However, that the story may not be literal truth doesn't prevent it from being figurative truth. Those who serve overseas do so at the cost of great personal sacrifice. A tale such as this — literal truth or not — serves to remind us all of how much they give and how much we owe them.