Where would they be now?
Thomas Calabrese …Kit Connolly grew up on a small ranch in Lassen County that was located sixty five miles south of Susanville in Northern California. From the time that she was old enough to walk, she began helping her father, mother and two older brothers with chores around the sixty five acre property. It seemed that from her very first breath, Kit loved animals with all her heart and when she wasn’t taking care of her own pets, she was helping neighbors with theirs or volunteering at a local wildlife sanctuary.
Kit had to make a very difficult decision after high school graduation and it was one that required a great amount of soul searching and courage on her part. Her father Ron had served in the Navy and he instilled a great sense of patriotism and love of country in his children so when his daughter approached him about joining the military, he wanted to tell her absolutely not, but he knew it would be hypocritical on his part so he listened and kept an open mind. His eldest son, Mike had already served in the Army and was now home after being discharged two years ago and his other boy, Bill was a reservist with the California National Guard and Kit was next in line to do her duty.
One of Kit’s greatest concerns was leaving her animals behind, but her brothers made a solemn promise to care for them if she decided to join up. She spent numerous nights out by the creek with her three dogs contemplating her future and finally made her decision after seeing the movie, ‘Megan Leavy, “I’m going to join the Marine Corps, I’ve talked to the recruiter and he told me that if I qualified, I could be a dog handler.” She told her family.
Even though she cried most of the way from Susanville to San Diego, Kit summoned all her strength and dried her tears upon her arrival at Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego and focused on her goal to become a dog handler (Military Occupational Specialty 5811).
Kit was on her second deployment to Afghanistan and stationed at Camp Leatherneck in the Helmand Province with her dog Rudy, a Belgian Malinois. She was on patrol with an infantry unit from 3rd Battalion, Fifth Marines when Rudy sensed an ambush and growled softly and remained motionless, which was his signal for danger. Kit whispered, “Easy boy,” then backed up slowly toward the main column. When she heard the sound of an incoming mortar round, Kit yelled out, “Hit the deck!” then took off in a full sprint and instinctively pushed a Marine off the road then shielded him with her body, while Rudy stayed by her side. A mortar round landed exactly where the Marine would have been standing a split second earlier.
During the course of the attack, Kit pulled several wounded Marines to safety and sustained several shrapnel wounds in the battle. One of the wounds was to her right thigh and when she was unable to run, Rudy rushed to her assistance, grabbed Kit’s collar with his teeth and struggled to pull her off the road. The Marine lieutenant, who had been pushed out of the way, slowly regained his senses and looked up from his prone position and saw the injured handler and her dog. He attempted to help, but as soon as he stood up, the force of an RPG, (rocket propelled grenade) exploded nearby and knocked him unconsciousness.
After her return from Afghanistan, Kit was assigned to the Wounded Warrior barracks on Camp Pendleton to recuperate and rehabilitate while awaiting her medical discharge. Kit filed the appropriate paperwork to adopt Rudy and when the Marine Corps hesitated, she contacted Congressman Issa for assistance and he intervened in her behalf. If it wasn’t for the fact that Kit had been recommended for a Silver Star for gallantry in action, command would have probably denied her request, but chose instead to approve it and use the incident to generate some positive press. Kit didn’t mind giving a few interviews or going to a photo shoot, as long as she got Rudy. After all, it was all about the dog.
Rather than lounge around the barracks and play video games while her paperwork was slowly being processed, Kit chose to go down where Rudy was being kenneled with the other service dogs and take him to the Camp Pendleton animal shelter in Area 25 of the base. With Rudy by her side, Kit worked with the dogs that needed special training before they could be safely adopted. It was while she was there that she met longtime volunteer, Elaine Godfrey and they developed a friendship. Elaine also volunteered with SPOT Animal Rescue, that was based in Oceanside and when she saw Kit’s special rapport with the animals, she suggested, “You should really consider starting a business training dogs.”
“I have no idea how to do that, I went straight from my parents’ ranch to the Marine Corps,” Kit responded.
Elaine smiled, “At the risk of sounding immodest, I am an expert in small business operation. I’ve been running my family cabinetry shop since I was in high school and please don’t ask me how long ago that was. Since this is all about the dogs, I am more than glad to help you.”
Once Elaine set her mind to do something, she would not be denied, deterred or discouraged. When Kit received her discharge from the Corps, Elaine helped her design business cards and found her a good deal on a used Toyota Highlander SUV, then introduced Kit to Betty Johnson, a widow and animal lover, who lived off Buena Creek Drive in Vista. In return for helping with her menagerie of animals, which included three dogs, four cats and several chickens, Betty Johnson offered Kit the use of a small one room cottage on her four acre parcel of property for two hundred dollars a month. The place was run down and the landscaping was overgrown, but it was good enough for Kit because it was about all the animals anyway.
Over the next few months Kit picked up clients who needed help with their dogs and it was a good thing that Elaine was collecting the fees, otherwise Kit would have worked for free. As her reputation began to grow, animal shelters and rescue groups began to ask for her services. A dog with behavioral issues caused by abuse or neglect had very little chance of being adopted and when a dog was labeled unadoptable, the next step was usually euthanasia. This put a lot of pressure on Kit because she did not want to see any dog be put down and didn’t have to be asked twice if an animal needed help. It was a labor of love and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Over the next four months Kit helped Betty fix things around the property and installed some temporary fencing where she could bring dogs home and give them some special attention, but the situation was not to last. Betty Johnson had a heart attack and passed away in her sleep and her family wasted little time notifying Kit that she would have to move because they planned to sell the property.
Kit had her trusted companion Rudy and adopted a Burmese Mountain Dog, that she named Bosco and never went anywhere without either one of them. When she began looking for another place to live, she quickly realized two important facts; she could not afford the high rent for a decent place and most apartment complexes would not allow two large dogs. Elaine told her to be patient and something would eventually come up, so in the meantime, Kit worked out an agreement with the Rancho Coastal Humane Society to be a kennel attendant in return for a small room on the property. It was far from being an ideal situation with little privacy and if she could not find a decent living situation soon then Kit might have to return to Northern California.
Jim Rollins met with the head architect and general contractor at the shopping center job site in Temecula and they resolved several important issues, “Okay, we’re all on the same page now, let’s keep it that way. We want to move quickly, but efficiently so if anything comes up that concerns you, don’t sit on it. You’ve got my number and you can call me day or night”
While returning to the Rollins Holdings corporate office in Carlsbad and driving south on Interstate 15, Jim saw traffic at a standstill, backed up for miles up ahead and a group of flashing red lights. This was a fairly accurate indication of an accident and a hell of an incentive to take a detour.
Jim took the exit to Highway 76 and while driving west, he caught a fleeting glimpse of something crawling between the shoulder of the road and the dried brush. When he looked in his rear view mirror, Jim realized that it was a dog, so he quickly pulled off the highway and walked back to check on the animal. It was a badly injured gray and white Pitbull, covered with dirt and blood and so weak that it could not stand. The dog was whimpering so Jim gently put his arms under it and lifted him up. Jim’s clean shirt and pants were quickly soiled and stained as he placed the dog on the leather back seat of his brand new Lexus sedan, but none of that mattered to Jim. He drove directly to Surfside Animal Hospital on Mission Avenue and two attendants came out with a stretcher and carried the injured animal inside. Jim left his phone number with the receptionist then drove to his office on Loker Avenue in Carlsbad.
When he entered the lobby, his father Wayne commented on Jim’s clothing, “Did you have a problem at the jobsite?”
“I picked up a dog on the way back, I’ll clean up then bring you up to speed,” Jim answered.
Rollins Holdings was a major real estate conglomerate with interests in shopping centers, apartment complexes, condominiums, office buildings and commercial buildings. Most of their holdings were in San Diego County, but they also owned property in Orange County, Phoenix, Arizona and Las Vegas, Nevada. Benjamin Rollins started the company in 1967 and Jim was the third generation to work in the company.
Over the next week, Jim called Surfside Animal Hospital every day to check on the recovery progress of the injured Pitbull and when he was notified that he was well enough to be transferred to the Humane Society shelter on San Luis Rey Road, Jim told the receptionist to hold him until he could get there. The gray and white Pitbull was being kept in a cage in the back of the building. Doctor Zeisman explained the situation, “We had to keep him sedated and muzzled in order to treat him. He had been so severely traumatized that he won’t let anybody get near him.”
Jim bent down and looked inside the cage. The dog was cowering in the corner and when Jim called out, “C’mon boy,” the Pitbull growled menacingly and bared his teeth.
“See what I mean,” Doctor Zeisman said.
“You said that you were going to send him to the Humane Society, what will they do with him?” Jim asked.
“They have an intake evaluator, this is a very strong and powerful animal and in his current mental state, they may have no other choice, but to put him down.”
“You spend an entire week treating him and now you’re just going to send him off to be killed?” Jim was equally surprised and disappointed.
He was abandoned and we treated him for free, there’s nothing else we can do, I’m sorry,” Doctor Zeisman shrugged.
“How about if I pay his medical bills and boarding fees and you give me a couple of days to see if I can find a place for him,” Jim looked at the fearful animal, “I’m not giving up on you just yet.”
Jim handed his credit card to the receptionist at the front desk and was charged twenty seven hundred dollars. On the way back to the office, Jim called the Rancho Coastal Humane Society and asked them if they would accept the animal and even though they were almost full with dogs, they were happy to agree. The fact that Jim had been a generous benefactor in the past had a lot to do with their acceptance. Jim made a mental note to send a generous contribution.
The transfer was made and Jim was not overly optimistic that the Pitbull could be saved, but felt compelled to give him every opportunity to live. In his heart, he felt it was the least that he could do for an animal that had suffered so much. Imagine his surprise when he saw the fearful dog lying next to a young woman as she stroked his massive head while two other dogs sat nearby.
As soon as the woman looked up, Jim felt a chill run up his spine. It was a weird disconcerting feeling that caught him completely off guard as he swayed back and forth and almost lost his balance.
“Are you alright?” Kit called out.
“I think so, I don’t know what happened, but I’m alright now.”
“You might want to sit down,” Kit suggested.
“Maybe,” Jim sat down on the wooden bench and the Pitbull came over and nuzzled him.
“Is this your dog?” Kit asked.
“No, not really, I found him on the road, got him some medical treatment and had him brought here, Jim responded, “Last time, I couldn’t even get close.”
The Pitbull was extremely affectionate with Jim, trying to lick his face and raising his paw to play.
“How did you do this?” Jim asked.
“I just reminded him that he was safe, dogs that have been abused and mistreated need a little more time to accept the fact that not every human is their enemy,” Kit explained.
“You told him all that?” Jim marveled.
“Not in so many words, more in a non-verbal way,” Kit answered.
Jim and Kit sat for about thirty minutes and watched the three dogs playing until Kit finally said, “As much as I would like to stay, I told the Fallbrook Animal Sanctuary that I would be there around 1300 hundred hours, I mean 1p.m.”
“I thought you worked here?” Jim inquired.
“I work all over the place, but I’m staying here temporarily because the place that I was living in is being sold. It is kind of a big mess right now and I’m sure that you don’t want to hear me whine about my problems,” Kit said
“Actually I’m very interested,” Jim smiled.
The Pitbull was trying to get Jim to play by nuzzling up to him, “What are you going to do about this dog?” Kit asked, “He knows that you’re the one that saved him and while you may not choose to adopt him, he’s already picked you as his owner.”
“You make a compelling argument,” Jim replied, “Let me think about it.”
Kit handed Jim her business card, “I do dog training and if it would make you feel more comfortable, I can work with him some more.”
“How much do you charge?”
“Twenty five dollars an hour, Kit answered, “but if you’re short of money, I can do it for free.”
“Twenty five dollars, that sounds kind of cheap for quality animal training,” Jim said.
“I was giving you the military discount,” Kit pointed to the small USMC tattoo on Jim’s upper arm.”
“I want the deluxe package,” Jim countered, “How about ten sessions for five hundred dollars?”
“I don’t want to overcharge you.”
“I can tell that I’ll get my money’s worth.”
“I have to get going, call me and we’ll set up our first session,” Kit turned and walked away.
“One more thing,”
“Did you like where you were living?” Jim asked.
“The living conditions weren’t all that great, but it had a few acres of open space which I really liked, because when it comes down to it, it’s all about the dogs.”
“You said that it’s for sale?” Jim asked.
Kit answered, “I would have bought it if I had the money, of course I would also like to win the lottery.”
“I know somebody that is looking for some property, do you mind telling me where it is located?”
Kit took out another business card and wrote on the back, “Here’s the name of the deceased owner and the address,” then handed it to Jim.
“I see your name on the card, mine is Jim Rollins”
“I’ll look forward to seeing you again, Jim,” Kit called out as she rushed to her vehicle with her dogs by her side.
Jim embraced the Pitbull as the powerful animal affectionately licked his face, “I know…I know.”
When he got to his office, Jim stopped by his personal assistant, Lori’s office and wrote the name and address that Kit had written on her card, “Would you please run a title search on this property for me?”
Lori looked at the information, “Are you in a big hurry or can it wait?”
“Actually the sooner the better, if you don’t mind?” Jim said.
“I’ll have it for you within the hour,” Lori responded.
“One more thing, this concerns our new condo complex in San Marcos, would you contact Helen Baxter on the sales team and have her call me.”
Jim was feeling weak and disoriented and when he went into his office, he shut the door and lied down on the couch. He quickly fell asleep and had a flashback to when he was wounded while serving with the Marines in Afghanistan. He screamed out when the explosion propelled him into the air and when he awakened, he was lying on the floor and perspiring heavily.
Wayne Rollins rushed in and saw his son lying on the floor, “What happened?”
“I had a dream about when I was wounded. All this time that I’ve been home, I couldn’t remember anything and now it’s coming back to me,” Jim whispered as he tried to compose himself.
Wayne extended his hand and helped his son to his feet and embraced him. The look of concern was etched upon his face.
It was their third session together at the Rancho Coastal Humane Society and Jim had adopted the Pitbull and named him Sam. They had bonded to the point that they were pretty much inseparable and there wasn’t much training involved anymore so Kit and Jim sat on a bench and made small talk while the dogs played together.
“I got an unusual call yesterday from a lady who said that she heard about the work that I was doing with dogs and that I was looking for a place to live so she offered me a fully furnished condo.”
“That’s good news, isn’t it?” Jim pretended to be surprised, “How much is the rent?”
“Nothing,” Kit answered, “The lady said, don’t worry about the money, this is all about the dogs.”
Jim bought ten more training sessions from Kit and was meeting her three times a week and it didn’t take long for him to realize that he had fallen in love with the independent and kindhearted woman. He still had not told Kit about his family business or his wealth, not because he wanted to deceive her, but because he didn’t want her to feel obligated. It was nice and simple right now and Jim wanted to keep it that way.
It was before one of their sessions and Jim had arrived several minutes before Kit and was sitting on the bench when he saw her walking toward him. Then it came rushing back to him, like a dam that had been holding back repressed memories suddenly burst and images flooded his mind. One of those images was of the dog handler who saved his life. When Kit got closer, Jim stammered, “Did you know that it was me that you saved on that road in Afghanistan?”
“Kit smiled, “Not at first, but I had this strange feeling that I had seen you before. When you adopted Sam and started having flashbacks, your father became worried and followed you one day. After you left, he approached me and we had a long talk. We both agreed that it was best to let you move at your own pace.”
“So you were just pretending all this time?” Jim was obviously irritated.
“I wasn’t pretending about anything!” Kit snapped back, “I just agreed with your father that I would not mention my time in the Corps, everything else was real, especially how much I care about you.”
“Did you know that I’ve fallen in love with you?” Jim asked.
“I was hoping that was the case,” Kit smiled.
Jim and Kit passionately kissed as their dogs felt the positive energy and encompassed them.
Three days later, Jim was driving and Kit was in the passenger seat with her eyes covered with a blindfold. Rudy, Yogi and Sam were sitting in the backseat like three children out for a Sunday drive.
Kit said, “I hope we’re getting close because I’m starting to get nauseous riding like this.”
“Almost there, just be patient a little longer.”
“I need to tell you something,” Kit said.
“I know it was you that made the condo available to me,” Kit continued.
“What gave me away?” Jim asked.
“My instincts for one thing, the big sign at the entrance with the words, A Rollins Property, for another.”
“That part slipped my mind,” Jim shrugged, “I’m glad you accepted it anyway.”
“If anybody else had offered me free rent, I would have done an immediate about face, but I had to see where this journey was going to take me. At least now I can thank you.”
Two minutes later, Jim stopped in front of Kit’s former residence in the Vista Hills. The residence had been completely renovated and the grounds were meticulously landscaped.
Jim and Kit exited the vehicle and let the dogs out to play. As they toured the property, Jim kept his emotions under a tight rein, “I don’t know what is going to happen between us, I have my issues to work on, but no matter how things turn out, one thing is certain, this place will be yours to use for as long as you want it…”
Kit kissed Jim before he finished speaking and they willingly surrendered to the passionate embrace and fell backward into the lush green grass. For these two former Marines whose brief encounter in combat was just the first step of a shared destiny, they couldn’t help but wonder; if it wasn’t for the dogs, where would they be now?