This handsome fella is Marshall. I introduce him to everyone as the Guilt Dog. No, the dog is not guilty of anything except being a bundle of perpetually shedding fur. He’s a sweet dog. A lover. We will get back to Marshall in a moment.
I love being a part of a military family. I was an Air Force brat for the first twenty-three years of my life, and now my husband Steve and I are raising three Air Force brats of our own. There are so many great things about being a military family. It’s the pride in your active duty member’s service to our country. It’s the feeling that you are a part of something that is bigger than yourself. It’s the all the new people you meet who become second family. It’s the chance to see the country and the world. It’s excitement and a change of scenery every few years.
But let’s face it–military family life can be stressful. Having a parent who is frequently deployed or consistently on temporary duty away from home (TDY) is hard on the children as well as the parent who is left to hold down the fort. Having to PCS (permanent change of station; a move to a new base) every few years means your child is “the new kid” often. There is a myth out there that military kids are all outgoing and make friends easily. Like the general population, some military children are shy and insecure, and leaving hard-fought friendships behind to start all over again can bring lots of tears and consternation.
And with that comes parental guilt. Big time. Whether or not we should actually feel guilty is another issue, but the reality is that it is heartbreaking to watch your children deal with the challenges this lifestyle throws at them.
We talk a lot about the resilience of military kids. And they are resilient. But even the most resilient kids sometimes struggle with a move or a deployment. In turn, the parents can feel a weight of responsibility for that unhappiness. My husband and I have spent many hours questioning our choices.
Like most children, our kids really wanted a dog. My husband even wanted a dog. I, on the other hand, absolutely did not want a dog. At least while my husband was active duty. It wasn’t that I didn’t like dogs, it’s just that I knew that the responsibility for that animal would fall on me. I already had too much on my plate—three young children, a husband whose Air Force career kept him away from home a lot of the time, PCSs that were getting more frequent, etc., etc., etc. A dog would be like throwing a perpetual toddler into the mix. And who was kidding who? It would really be my dog to feed, take to the vet, take to the groomer and clean up after. No, I did not want a dog. I held this anti-family-dog hardline for many years.
The Air Force gave us some great news—my husband had been picked up for a year-long assignment at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. This was wonderful for me; my parents and siblings in Nebraska would be just a three-hour drive away, which is practically next door compared to the places we had been stationed for the past twelve years. But there was a catch—we had to PCS in December. This would mean two back-to-back Christmas moves. Even so, we were excited.
We left Florida and arrived in Kansas three days before Christmas, just in time for a blizzard of epic proportions. Despite the initial bad weather, it was a fantastic but quick year in Kansas. Before we knew it, the Christmas season was upon us again, and it was time to move, now to Texas.
We spent our first Christmas in San Antonio in temporary lodging. Our four-year-old was worried that Santa wouldn’t find us. With a yearlong wait expected for base housing and no acceptable rentals available in December or January (imagine that), we were forced into buying a house and moved in just after the New Year.
When the kids started their third school in the third state they had lived in in thirteen months, we were living in an empty house. Our household goods hadn’t arrived yet. Our oldest son was placed in a very rowdy classroom, full of the troublemaker kids. His grades began to suffer. Our daughter made a friend in the neighborhood—but this “friend” soon started bullying her to the point of tears. Our youngest had an acute case of separation anxiety—too many preschools with too many strangers in too short of a time. He fell apart whenever I dropped him off with his teacher.
Steve’s new position had him traveling right away, and he was gone three weeks out of every month. The kids, especially our ten-year-old, missed him terribly. He would cry on my shoulder at bedtime, wanting his father to come home to us.
Six months into this assignment, our children’s unhappiness was palatable. Our resilient kids were reaching their breaking point. That feeling of guilt was overwhelming for me. What would dry our children’s tears? Anything to give them an ounce of happiness.
It hit me. A dog. They had always wanted a dog.
So, I caved. We would get a puppy over the summer and our children would smile again.
Enter Marshall. The kids (and Steve) were over the moon about this puppy. I have to admit, he was the most adorable ball of fur I had ever seen, and I was the first to hold him. Marshall’s paws didn’t touch the ground for the first week we had him. He was carried around the house like a little king. It was so good to see the joy in my family’s eyes because of this dog. Marshall proved to be a sweet, gentle companion. He showered everyone with licks and affection. He loved to cuddle. He melted their hearts with his big, brown eyes.
A week after we brought Marshall home, my husband was sent away for three months leaving me to house-train the Guilt Dog. Marshall had taken to using our dining room as his own personal toilet. Growing up, I never had a dog, so training our new puppy to do his business outside proved challenging. The kids tried to help, but you know how it goes. No amount of cuteness could compensate for having to clean the poop off of the carpet every day.
The family loved the dog and the dog loved them right back. I liked Marshall. But I wouldn’t call it love. He was just another thing for me to worry about. One more child to take care of. He was hair-bunnies floating across tile floors, dirty paw prints on the living room rug, white dog hairs all over my black pants. Though eventually he did stop pooping in the dining room. That was a bonus.
Two-and-a-half years after we unpacked in Texas, everything was back in boxes. This time it was off to Oklahoma…with a dog, his oversized crate and more toys than one dog should ever be allowed to have.
We had been in Oklahoma for a year when I got bad results from a thyroid nodule biopsy. Doctors thought it was cancer. The thyroid had to go. Within days, I was under the knife and back at home recovering. I felt like I had been hit in the back of the head with an iron pipe. Friends and family rallied around me.
And, to my surprise, the dog. Marshall didn’t leave my side for a week after my surgery. He made sure I was never alone. It was touching. He loved me even though I hadn’t necessarily loved him back. And I appreciated his loyalty. (Side note: fortunately for me, the doctors had been wrong—it wasn’t cancer.)
A year and a half later, when word came that we were moving to Belgium, we were all thrilled! A chance to have an adventure! My initial thought was not to bring the dog. Yes, he was a sweet dog, but it would be expensive to fly him overseas since the military won’t pay for your pet’s plane ticket. And the cost to frequently kennel him while we traveled Europe was going to add up. With all this in mind and knowing our extended family loved our dog, I knew it wouldn’t be difficult to get someone to take him for three years. Sending money every month for kibble and milk-bones seemed much easier than transporting a dog across the Atlantic.
This idea did not go over well.
“Mom! Would you leave me behind while the rest of you went to live in Europe?”
“Marshall is family!”
“He has to come with us!”
I was outvoted. The decision was made that the dog was going to Belgium, too.
Another decision was to drive from Oklahoma to New York so we could make pit-stops to see family and friends before our big move. The kids, Marshall and I would stay in New York with Steve’s parents while he left ahead of us to find a house.
So there I was, staying in upstate New York, taking Marshall to an unfamiliar veterinarian for his overseas travel check-ups, driving 90-miles to Albany for the mandatory USDA appointment so he would not suffer quarantine in Belgium, riding six hours with my very patient father-in-law and kids to Baltimore, taking a detour to Philadelphia to drop the dog off with a pet shipping service (Marshall couldn’t fly from Baltimore. Ugh.), praying all the while that the summer heat (dogs can’t travel in the cargo hold if it is too hot) would not foil our carefully orchestrated plans. 3,825 miles and $2,000 later, Marshall was waiting for the kids and I at baggage claim in Brussels. He was scared and hungry, but he was there.
The move to French-speaking Belgium was much more difficult for the kids than we had expected. Their original excitement had turned into insecurity. When we were out in the community, they would freeze up if anyone spoke to them. We hadn’t had time to learn the language before the move. Getting used to the Belgian way of doing things and adjusting to a small Department of Defense school that was half international students (very different from the mega-schools they had attended in the States) was going to take some time. Though it was cool to meet kids from all over the world, they missed the friends they had left behind.
Marshall had been a bit of an afterthought for the kids during our Oklahoma years, but they loved him up in Belgium. He was showered with attention, and was a needed comfort when they were outside of their comfort zone.
I was glad that I had been outvoted.
We had been in our Belgian house for about a month and a half when one Saturday afternoon I realized that I hadn’t seen Marshall for a few hours. And for a dog that spends most of his time underfoot, that was unusual. He wasn’t in the house. He wasn’t in the yard. We noticed a hole in the fence and realized that he had gotten out. Our family went into search and rescue mode. We scattered in all directions looking for Marshall, but there was no sign of him. He was gone. We had never updated his tags from our Texas address (oops). His chip info still had us in the States. And with no information about how to contact us in Belgium, I was convinced we would never see Marshall again.
We were all in a panic.
Luckily, a Belgian neighbor saw our son walking with an empty dog leash in hand and calling Marshall’s name. Through our tattered French and his broken English, we discovered that our neighbor saw a dog running through the tall grass. Riders on horseback picked him up and not able to find to whom he belonged, carried him to their home at the racing track several miles away. Our neighbor offered to show us the way so we piled in our car and followed him. When we got to the track, there was Marshall, right by the horses, covered in burrs and dead grass, but safe and sound. The people who had found him were happy to reunite this pooch with his family.
We brought Marshall home. He must have felt terribly guilty, because he wouldn’t look anyone in the eye and kept his head low. Even though he had caused an enormous amount of stress, it was hard to be angry with him.
The kids started to brush the burrs and grass out of his fur.
And I started to cry tears of relief. I had been worried sick about Marshall. I thought he might have been hit by a car. I thought he might have been killed.
Then it hit me. I had grown to love the Guilt Dog despite myself. Maybe in worrying so much about our kids, I had failed to realize something: I needed that Guilt Dog just as much as they did.
I still introduce Marshall as the Guilt Dog, but now it is a term of endearment rather than annoyance. Maybe giving your children something to love when their resilience is pushed to its limits isn’t such a bad thing.