A longtime Marine in Vietnam, Detroit veteran Greg Brabaw was living at home with no family and few friends when someone reached out to the Vet Friends Foundation organization (originally called One Last Treat) on his behalf. They thought Brabaw might be a good candidate for the group's program pairing vets with senior dogs looking for homes. Soon, the grizzled Brabaw met Pops, a little Chihuahua.
"Greg was really all alone. When we brought him Pops, he basically opened up to us and told us how much Pops allowed him to think about something other than his own suffering" Joel Rockey, the founder of Vet Friends, tells MNN. "They are pretty much best friends now."
The nonprofit, which got started in the summer of 2016, hunts for senior dogs looking to live out the rest of their lives with love and attention. A special program under the group's umbrella finds the dogs homes with veterans and then pays all the pets' health bills.
Rockey came up with the idea not long after spending five years in the Navy in Iraq and Afghanistan and returning home. He wanted to focus his energy on something he felt passionate about, and he happened upon an old pug in a snowstorm. The dog was blind, deaf and injured, but Rockey took him home and named him Lurch.
"He only lived for three more months, but we gave him a pretty awesome three more months," Rockey says. "I felt really compelled to gear my energy towards animals and how to make their lives better. I liked being there in their last moments, so I called my vet buddies and they were down with the idea."
Homes instead of treats
Originally, the team planned to bring treats to senior dogs that were about to be euthanized in animal shelters. But shelters didn't want to call attention to the last hours of those dogs, so they had to formulate a new game plan.
Now they find senior dogs and get them first into foster homes, and then into adoptive homes. Since the group began, they've found homes for more than 130 dogs. Many are adopted by everyday people; some are adopted by veterans. If a veteran adopts a dog from their organization or another rescue, they'll pay the veterinarian bills for the rest of the dog's life. The majority of dogs have come from the Detroit area, but the group has pulled dogs out of shelters when they've been in California and have veteran/dog "teams" coming on board in Ohio, Missouri and California.
"We try to pull animals that will be good companion animals ... relaxed and laid-back and not too much going on healthwise," Rockey says. "Maybe they're starting to go downhill a little bit but not knocking on the door." That way the dogs might be with their adopters for at least a few years, he says.
There are currently working with about 30 dog/veteran teams. Supporters often donate to help pay their bills.
Rockey says the benefits to the dogs is obvious; they get homes instead of being overlooked. But the benefit to the veterans is unmeasurable.
"The biggest thing is self importance. As a vet myself, I think veterans, when they get out of the military, aren’t asked to do anything anymore," Rockey says. "They start losing self importance. Everyone is thanking them, but they're not being asked to do anything. When they're taking care of a senior animal, they're needed and it creates a new sense of value in their life."
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was published in March 2017.