But something was still missing and as I attempted to settle in to my new life here, I thought a dog couldn't hurt. It would give me someone to talk to. I had just seen Reggie's advertisement on the local news. The shelter said they had received numerous calls right after it aired, 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.
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. Or maybe, it was because we were just too much alike.
Then I saw the sealed envelope among his things. I had completely forgotten about it. "Okay, Reggie," I said out loud, "let's see if your previous owner has any advice."
To Whomever Gets My Dog:
Well, I can't say that I'm happy you're reading this. It's a letter I told the shelter could only be opened by Reggie's new owner. I'm not even happy about writing it. If you're reading it, it means I just got back from my last car ride with my Lab, after dropping him off with the shelter -- he knew something was different. I've packed up his pad and toys before and set them by the back door before a trip, but this was different ... it's like he knew something was wrong, and something is wrong ... which is why I have to go try and make it right.
First, he loves tennis balls. The more the merrier. Sometimes I think he's part squirrel, the way he hoards 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 them, so be careful. 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. He knows the obvious ones ---"sit," "stay," "come," "heel." He knows hand signals, too: "back" to turn around and go back with the hand straight up. "Over" if you put your hand out, right or left. He knows "down" when he feels like laying down -- I bet you could work on that some more with him. He knows "ball" and "food" and "bone" and "treat" like nobody's business.
Feeding schedule: twice a day, once at seven in the morning, and again at about six in the evening, the regular store-bought stuff; the shelter has the brand.
Finally, give him some time. I've never been married. 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 back seat, and he doesn't bark or complain. He just loves to be around people and me most especially.
I told the shelter that they couldn't make "Reggie" available for adoption until they received word from my company commander. You 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 CO 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.
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, too, 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 my inspiration to do something selfless to protect innocent people from those who do terrible things. If I have to give up Tank in order to do it, I am glad to have done so. He is 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. 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 have 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 into the next room. And when he came back, he had three tennis balls in his mouth.
If you can read this without getting a lump in your throat or a tear in your eye, you just ain't right. A veteran is someone who, at one point, wrote a blank check made payable to 'The United States of America' for an amount of 'up to and including their life.' That is Honor, and there are way too many people in this country who no longer understand it.
The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.