To the Dog Side of Town
Thomas Calabrese –Staff Sergeant Nick Morrison was currently deployed to Afghanistan and assigned to Camp Dwyer in the Gamir district of the Helmand River Valley with the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion. His recon team came under attack from small arms and light anti-tank weapons when a large group of Taliban fighters ambushed them as they were scouting for an infantry platoon along a mountain trail. The Marines instinctively dived for cover and returned fire as bullets peppered the area and explosions shook the ground.
Nick crouched down and used his three previous tours of combat experience to evaluate the situation. It took him less than five seconds to come up with a plan and ran back 50 yards in a zigzag pattern to make himself a more difficult target for enemy shooters. When he reached the company commander of the infantry platoon, Lieuteant Jim Keane was lying flat on the ground with his radioman next to him, “My men will hold them off…we’ll re-group at those rocks,” Nick pointed to a cluster of boulders on the right flank. This was Lieutenant Keane’s first experience in combat and his heart was beating so fast that he thought it was going to pop out of his chest. The savy NCO placed a reassuring right hand on the young Marine Corps officer’s shoulder and reiterated calmly, “ Get to those rocks, we’ll figure the rest out from there.”
“Why don’t we just call in air support?” Lt. Keane nervously asked as bullets whizzed overhead.
“We need to get out of the open first,” Nick responded, “Or we’ll get killed by friendly fire.”
After Staff Sergeant Morrison returned to his men, he signaled Lt. Keane that it was time to make his move. When the infantry platoon ran for the boulders, Nick and his men opened fire while throwing hand grenades between reloading. When the Marines reached cover, Nick yelled at his men, “GO! I’m right behind you.”
The four Recon Marines raced off and when Nick started to follow, he was shot through his right calf and fell to the ground. He looked at his wound and knew that he would never make it to the rocks. He picked up the radio and pressed the numbers on the keypad that emitted the radar beacon and yelled out, “Danger close..fire on my position.”
Three F-18 Hornets locked in on the beacon and let loose with their missiles just as the Taliban fighters were about ready to overrun his position. It was the longest three minutes of his Nick’s life as the aircraft unleashed hellfire on the area. It seemed that everytime there was an explosion, his body bounced three feet in the air with the last missile knocking him unconscious.
Nick knew that he wanted to wake up, but his eyelids would not work. His body was not taking orders from his brain. Finally after using all his willpower, he got his eyelids to flutter and eventually open. When he looked around everything was hazy and unfamiliar. A nurse walked by, stopped at his bed and flashed him a big smile, “It is good to see you awake, Staff Sergeant.”
“How long have I been out?”
“Two days,” The nurse answered.
“Where exactly am I?” Nick asked.
“Bagram Military Hospital.”
Morrison grimaced as rubbed his head, “I’ve got the sergeant major of all headches.”
“Just relax,” The nurse encouraged.
“I think I’m going to throw-up.”
The nurse quickly grabbed a plastic basin and held it out for Nick as he leaned over the edge of the bed and relieved himself.
“Thank you, ma’am,” Nick weakly responded.
Staff Sergeant Nick Morrison recovered from his leg wound, but the symptoms of his (TBI) traumatic brain injury lingered, even after he returned to Camp Pendleton. At one time or another, he found himself confused or disoriented, experienced headaches, had loss of balance and felt nauseous. Nick’s sleep patterns were also jumbled, sometimes he would stay awake all night and fall asleep at the strangest times, like while he was eating lunch. Nick was placed in a cognitive rehabilitation program that focused on improving his thinking and communication skills such as problem solving, planning and memory. It was very frustrating to a warrior who was used to making life and death split second decisions to have to plan so many things in advance, then refer to his pocket calendar on a regular basis to double-check his schedule.
Nick was assigned to the Wounded Warrior barracks on base and dilligently adhered to the treatment protocol that was prescribed to him because he was bound and determined to get better and back to his unit. After six weeks, his counselor, Maria Larson determined that he had made enough progres to move to the next level of his treatment plan, “Have you ever thought about living off base?”
“Not lately, why?” Morrison responded.
“You are in a controlled environment here on base. Living off base will give you the opportunity to slowly acclimate to the civilian world,” Maria Larson suggested.
“I see where you’re coming from. You don’t think that I’m going to fully recover, do you? You want to make sure that when I get the infamous heave ho from the Corps that I’m not a danger to the friendlies.”
“I don’t make those decisions and you shouldn’t either. I’m here to help you get through the program so let’s just take it one step at a time,” Maria said.
“Point taken,”Nick replied, “The most important step is the next one.”
“We have a list of people who rent to veterans who are dealing with medical and readjustment issues. I took it upon myself to contact a retired couple about your particular situation. I thought you would be a good match. They live in the Rancho Del Oro area of Oceanside and have a small granny flat in the back of their property. The Marine who was living there moved back to Nebraska.”
Peter and Kristin Travers lived along the rear boundary of their housing development located on the top of a hill that overlooked a canyon that the San Luis Rey River ran through. Nick pressed the doorbell and a man in mid-sixties answered it, “Excuse me sir, I had an appointment at 1400 hours. My name is Nick Morrison.”
“I’m Peter Travers, please come in.”
Nick entered the house and a woman exited the kitchen with an inviting smile on her face, “Staff Sergeant Morrison, welcome to our home. Please have a seat.”
“Thank you ma’am.”
“Maria Larson told us a little about you and your situation, maybe you can tell us a little more,” Peter Travers suggested.
“Yes sir I could do that, but it might save some time if you just ask me what you want to know and I’ll tell you,” Morrison counteroffered.
“Do you smoke?” Peter Travers asked.
“I assume that you mean alcoholic beverages.No sir, I do not, I never developed a taste for it either socially or medicinally,” Nick answered, “ I don’t even drink coffee.”
“What about your family?” Kristin Travers.
“I was adopted by a nice couple when I was three years old. They were killed in a car accident while I was on my first deployment.”
“I’m sorry for your loss”
“Thank you ma’am.”
“Why don’t we take a look at the rental,” Peter Travers suggested.
Nick followed the couple to a flower lined concrete walkway in the rear of the main house that led to the small structure.
When Peter Travers opened the door, the six hundred square foot living space was completed furnished, including towels, silverware and linen. Nick was visibly impressed, “This is really nice, it’s like a five star hotel room.”
“We built it for our son,”Kristen Travers voiced trailed off.
“He was a Marine officer who was killed in action, two months before he was due to come home. He had been accepted to the MBA program at Cal State, San Marcos. We had this built so that he could be close to home and still have his own space,” Peter Travers.
“I’m sorry for your lost,” Nick put his hand over his heart and whispered, “Semper Fi.”
“Thank you,” Kristin Travers said.
“What does a place like this rent for?” Nick asked.
“We are asking $850 per month,” Peter Travers answered.
“I’ve been gone for a while, but what I hear from the other Marines on base, rents are very high around here. I’m sure you can get a lot more than that for a great place like this.”
“Its not about the money, its about giving back to those who have given so much. That amount is more than enough for us to maintain the place and cover the use of utilties,” Kristin Travers replied.
The couple accompanied Nick back to his truck and he said, “Thank you for taking the time to show me your place, sir, ma’am.”
“We’ll notify Maria about our decision,”Peter Travers added.
“Yes sir, I understand this is more than a rental to you, it is your home. Whatever you decide, I appreciate that would you even consider me,” Nick smiled.
As Nick drove off, Peter Travers turned to his wife, “Does that Marine remind you of anyone?”
“You saw it too,” Kristen Travers wiped a tear from her eye as she thought about their deceased son and her husband put a consoling arm aaround her shoulder.
The Travers contacted Maria Larson and told her that if Nick still wanted the place, it was his. When Nick moved in, he treated the small granny flat with the utmost respect. He was so concerned about the Travers’ peace and quiet that he bought wireless headphones so that when he watched television, there would be so no sound to disturb them. Over the first few weeks, he intently watched the routine of the Travers and then without being asked he began doing chores around the property like placing the trash and recyclable containers at curbside on the appropriate days.
When Nick saw Kristin Travers working on her property it was easy to tell the great pride she took in its appearance so every morning before he went to the base, Nick inspected the area, pulled any weeds and swept the walkways. His behavior did not go unnoticed or unappreciated by his landlords.
Kristin knocked on the door one evening with a casserole bowl in her hands and when Nick opened it she said, “I hope that I’m not disturbing you.”
“You can call me, Kristin.”
“I’ll work on that Ma’am,” Nick smiled.
“I made you a chicken, spinach and mushroom casserole to thank you for the work you’ve been doing around here,” Kristin said.
“That’s not necessary Ma’am, I’m happy to help out any way that I can,” Nick responded.
Kristin looked around the granny flat and nothing had changed since Nick moved in. It was spotless and everything was exactly where she had placed it. If she didn’t know better , she would have thought that it was still vacant, “You’re allowed to add some personal touches of your own, photos and pictures on the wall, things like that. This is supposed to be your home.”
“It was fine just the way you had it,” Nick shrugged.
Two weeks later, during one of his counseling session, Maria said, “You’ve really impressed the Travers.”
“Are you checking up on me?” Nick asked.
“That is kind of what I do around here,” Maria smiled.
“They’re good people who are easily impressed,” Nick dismissed the issue.
“They told me that you look for things to do to help out around the property.”
“Pulling a few weeds or pushing a trash container to the curb hardly qualifies me for a good conduct medal,” Nick grumbled.
“Maybe you’re just good guy?” Maria suggested, “Have you thought about that?”
“Not even close.”
“How have you been feeling?” Maria inquired.
“On the record, I’m fit and ready for duty.”
“The same problems, just not as often,” Nick sighed, “I know this is a marathon and not a sprint, but I’m getting impatient to be normal again.”
“You may have to adjust to a new normal.”
“I know…let me see how close I can get to where I used to be, and then maybe I’ll have a better idea of what I’m willing to settle for,” Nick said
“Let me run something by you… do you like dogs?”
“Yeah, why?” Nick said, “I also like apple pie and the star and stripes. Is this a test?”
One of the other counselors started a therapy program at the base shelter working with the dogs.”
“Are you asking me if I want to clean kennels?” Nick joked.
“Its more than that.”
Nick never looked at any job as being beneath him. When he arrived at the base shelter in Area 25 Vada Del Rio, he remembered what one of his high school teachers once said and it had served him well in the Corps. ‘It doesn’t matter what you do, it is how well you do it’.
The first time that he saw her, Nick knew that she was a special dog so he asked Corporal Hefferdon, the Marine assigned to the shelter about her,” What’s with the dog in kennel 13?”
“You mean Molly, she came in as a stray about three months ago,” Corporal Hefferdon answered, “She’s either really mellow or depressed. She likes to stay to herself.”
When Nick took Molly out to the exercise area, he found out that she was extremely intelligent and clever, taking to tricks and commands in minutes rather than days and was already well-trained with basic commands. Whoever lost her or abandoned her had spent a lot of time with training, which is another thing that made Nick think that she wasn’t just some random mutt. The veterinarian told him that Molly was a cross between a Belgian Malinois and a Pitbull. She had the head shape and snout of a Pitbull with tufts of hair running down her neck, ending in little swirl-like patterns on the side of her neck. Her coat was perfect and symmetrical and the vet added, “She must be a mix of two full-stock dogs because mixed breeds usually have at least one flaw in their coat, while hers is flawless.” Molly had an orangish/fawn color with streaks of black in her tail.
Over a period of time, Nick and Molly developed a connection and what was even more amazing was that whenever he was with her, Nick felt normal again. This unique dog emitted some kind of healing power that literally obliterated the symptoms his traumatic brain injury. He became so addicted to feeling good again that he spent most of his time at the animal shelter, even sleeping in the kennel with Molly at night.
When the Travers had not seen Nick in several days, they called Maria, worried that something might have happened to him. Nick explained his behavior to his counselor, “If I ask the Travers about bringing a dog home and they say no, then I’m going to be upset, and I don’t want to be upset with people who have been so kind and generous to me. On the other hand, I don’t want to put them in a position where they say yes because they feel sorry for me. I thought the best solution was just to stay away, at least for the time being until I could find another place to live.”
“Those are valid concerns, but did you know that the Marine who lived there before you had a therapy dog?” Maria asked.
“I do now.”
It was hard not to love Molly, she was the sweetest dog and adapted well to her new surroundings. She was quiet as Nick and hardly ever barked and every time she saw Peter or Kristen, she would run up to them with her tail wagging. This intuitive dog knew exactly when somebody needed her attention and when to stay away.
The precocious seven-year old girl stayed with her grandmother after school until her divorced mother got off work and then they would go back to their apartment on Vista Way. Nick was in the driveway one afternoon cleaning his Toyota pick-up and Molly was lying in the grass near him. The young girl walked across the street and introduced herself, “I’m Riley.”
Nick smiled, “I’m Nick and this is Molly.”
“May I pet your dog?”
In less than two minutes Riley was lying in the grass and cuddling with Molly, “My grandmother has a dog, but it is kind of old and doesn’t like to do much. I really like your dog.”
“I can tell that she likes you too. Anytime that Molly is around, I’m sure she would appreciate your company, right Molly?”
Molly barked and went up on her hind legs to show her agreement.
Over the next few months, Riley would finish her homework, look for Nick’s truck then come over to play with Molly. Nick never mentioned it, but he a made it a point to be home at the same time that Riley was at her grandmother’s. One afternoon Riley took off her bandana and tied it around the neck of Molly, “This is for you, so you won’t ever forget me.”
Nick commented, “You don’t need to worry about that, you’re one of her best friends.”
It was just before sunrise and Riley had stayed overnight at her grandmother’s because her mother Julie was out of town on a business trip. She heard the sound of the newspaper hitting the driveway and decided to get it for her grandmother. Riley opened the front door and her grandmother’s poodle Betsy ran out, “Come back here!”
Riley chased Betsy across the street and when she turned around she saw three coyotes eyeing her and the ten pound dog, “Aw hell,” Riley cursed under her breath.
Molly sensed trouble and went to the door and growled, Nick was already awake, “We’re going to the park…just hold on, I’ll be right with you.”
Molly would not be denied and when Nick opened the door to the yard, she raced out and leaped over the five foot fence. Nick did not even bother to put on his shoes before he chased after her. The coyotes had cornered Riley and the poodle and were ready to make their coordinated attack. Molly hit the largest coyote at full speed and knocked him off his feet and rolling down the sidewalk. The other two coyotes barred their fangs as the poodle ran under a car and Molly attacked both of them with such ferocity that they ran off in a full sprint.
There was enough commotion to wake up the entire neighborhood and when Riley’s grandmother came out of her front door, the first things that she saw was her granddaughter on the ground and Molly growling menacingly next to her. Lois Anderson’s first reaction was that Riley were being attacked by Molly instead of being protected by her. She screamed out in panic, “Get away from her!” When she saw Nick, she turned her wrath on him, “Get your dog! Get your dog!”
Riley tried to explain, but her grandmother was too hysterical to listen. Her dog Betsy was so fearful that it took her several minutes to coax her out from under the car. The little dog cut herself on the undercarriage of the vehicle and when Lois Anderson saw the blood, she assumed that Molly had done it and this further enraged her, “What is wrong with you, your dog is a menace!”
Lois Anderson filed complaints with the Oceanside Police Department and the Humane Society and threatened to file civil litigation against the Travers if they didn’t immediately evict Nick. When Riley tried to explain what actually happened, her grandmother thought she was lying to protect Molly and refused to listen. The situation had escalated to the point where Nick knew that he had to leave, He told the Travers, “I appreciate everything that you’ve done for me, but there would be too much negative energy and conflict in the neighborhood if I stayed. I’ll be gone before nightfall.”
Riley was so angry with her grandmother for forcing Nick and Molly out of the neighborhood that she wrote a note one day after school. Molly saved me and Betsy. If you won’t believe me then I’m leaving, Riley. She filled up her backpack with snacks and some extra clothes, climbed over the back fence and disappeared into the canyon.
Nick was cleaning up around the shelter with Molly by his side when he passed by the office and saw the television broadcasting about a young girl in Oceanside who had vanished. When he looked closer, he recognized the neighborhood and then realized that the missing girl was Riley Anderson!
The street was cordoned off with law enforcement personnel when Nick arrived with Molly. Lois Anderson began screaming when she saw him, “It’s your fault! It’s your fault!”
Nick immediately drove away and parked around the corner where he could not be seen. He took the bandana out of the glove compartment and asked Molly, “Do you think you can find her?”
Molly barked and nodded her head. Nick placed the bandana under Molly’s nose, “I know the scent is old, but it’s all we have.” He tied the bandana around her neck and let her out of the vehicle. Molly waited until Nick was ready then took off looking for an access to the canyon.
Riley had walked for five hours then changed her mind and turned around to return to her grandmother’s. The four men stepped out from the dense foliage and blocked her path “Where you going, little girl,” The biggest man glared.
Nick and Molly made good time and when he came across the small encampment along the river bed, his combat senses were on hyper alert. The four men were sitting around a campfire and one of the men commented, “You a Marine?”
The second man snarled, “Are you lost? The base is about five mile north of here. Did you break your little compass?”
When Nick looked at Molly, she was focused on a small tent about ten feet behind the men, “I’m not lost, I’m looking for a lost girl.”
The four slowly began reaching for weapons One pulled a thick bladed knife from its scabbard, another had his hand on an aluminum baseball bat and the other two had large wooden clubs.
“We haven’t seen her,” The first man lied.
“You don’t mind if I look inside your tent?” Nick asked.
“Yeah we do,” The second man answered.
“Then we’re going have a problem.”
The four men stood up and encircled Nick and Molly.
“Are you ready to die, Marine?” The third man joked.
“Marines are always prepared to die, it comes with the job, “Nick’s words were icy cold and right at this very moment, the four men realized they made a serious mistake, but it too late to turn back now.
The man with the knife lunged forward and Nick grabbed his wrist and turned the knife around and drove it into the man’s heart, then pulled it out and threw it at one of the other men and it struck him in the forehead. Molly leaped at the man with the baseball bat who was ready to swing it at Nick, and clamped down on his throat, crushing his windpipe. The fourth men begged for mercy, “Don’t kill me.”
Molly ran over to the tent and ripped it open with her teeth. Riley was tied and gagged. Nick released her and she embraced Molly with tears of joy in her eyes, “I knew you’d find me.”
Nick called 911 on his cellphone and the police arrived within ten minutes. When one police officer looked at the tree dead men, he asked, “What happened to these guys?”
“Their arrogance wrote a check that their abilities couldn’t cash,” Nick shrugged.
“I can buy that.”
A helicopter landed and Riley’s mother and grandmother exited the aircraft and were met by the search commander, “The man who found them is right over here.” When he turned around, Nick and Molly were gone, “He was here a minute ago with his dog.”
Maria called Nick to her office three days later, “You wanted to see me,” Nick said.
“The Travers called and would like you to come by their house at 1400 hours on Saturday,” Maria said.
“Did they say what they wanted?”
“No, but they said to bring Molly,” Maria added.
“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea,” Nick pondered.
“Maybe they just want to say goodbye to her. You owe them that much.”
“I do,” Nick said.
“Be on time,” Maria suggested.
“When have I been late?”
Nick left Molly in the truck and walked up to the front door of Travers’ home and rang the doorbell and Peter and Kristin quickly walked out.
“You wanted to see me?”
“Let’s take a walk,” Kristin suggested.
Peter opened the door to the truck as they passed it, “Molly is going to want to see this too.”
They walked down to the corner and crossed the street, “Are we going to the dog park?” Nick asked.
“You’ll see,” Kristin responded coyly.
Palisades Dog Park was filled with men, women, children and dogs. As soon as they saw Nick and Molly, everybody began cheering and applauding.
“The neighborhood wanted to show their appreciation,” Kristin said.
A familiar voice called out and Molly took off in a full sprint and found Riley in the crowd and began licking her face. Lois Anderson walked over, “I hope you’ll accept my apology. I overreacted to the situation and was so scared that I wasn’t thinking straight. I should have known that Molly would never hurt Riley.”
“No problem, Ma’am. Everything worked out for the best.
Julie Anderson walked over and gave Nick a big emotional hug, “Thank you so much for saving my daughter. She told me that she knew you and Molly would find her.”
Nick sat at the main table with Riley and her family as everybody enjoyed, hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken and ribs and all the fixings. There was even a dog cake for Molly and the other dogs, made from peanut butter, eggs, applesauce, grated carrots and a touch of honey.
Riley leaned over and whispered in Nick’s ear, “My mother has been looking for a good man. I put in a good word for you.”
When everybody had finished eating, Riley walked to the center of the park, “May I have your attention.” When everybody quieted down, Riley reached up and grabbed a rope and pulled it with all her might and it unfurled a banner that was strung between two tall trees. Everybody burst out in applause and cheering when they saw it.
Kristin walked over and placed her hands on Nick’s shoulders, “You have to come back now.”
The red, white and blue banner had these words on it; Welcome Back Molly To The Dog Side of Town. The End