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Vietnam veteran finds comfort in newly adopted German shepherd

Bill Atwell and his newly adopted German shepherd Bear. (WJAR)
Bill Atwell and his newly adopted German shepherd Bear. (WJAR)
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For the last few weeks, 78-year-old Bill Atwell is up and at 'em early.

A few weeks ago, he became the proud parent of 6-year-old "Bear," a German shepherd he recently adopted.

"He wakes up first sometimes he will come lick your face," said Atwell. "Ever since I got him, two plain munchkins he got to have that every morning."

The pair go everywhere together and do everything. The story of how the two of them came to be, is an amazing one.

Bear is trained to retrieve toys, but Atwell is familiar with all types of training. He was an Air Force K-9 handler in the Vietnam war.

"I was with the first group of dogs. They sent 90 dogs over there," said Atwell.

One of the dogs was a German shepherd named "Shadow," and he was special to Atwell who was paired up with him.

"He was fantastic. They can tell if something's bothering you, they can," he said. "He saved me a couple of times."

True to his name, Atwell said Shadow followed him everywhere.

The two working and living together in the trenches.

"We always worked at night," he said. "When it was a real warm night, Shadow and I would go swimming in the ocean and he loved it, he loved it."

Atwell said orders from President Richard Nixon eventually separated the pair.

"When Nixon said, 'I'm going to bring the boys home with honor,' he left 4,000 dogs over there," said Atwell. "I offered to buy him but once that dog has been trained to attack, the government won't let him go to anyone else."

Atwell said the thought of leaving Shadow there was unbearable, but he returned alone.

"I said to myself, 'When I leave, I'm not going to look at him' but I did," he said. "I had to leave the dog there. That really bothered me."

Over the years, there had been other dogs, but none quite like him.

"My wife said, 'No more dogs, that it. It's too hard when you have to have them put down'," said Atwell.

This summer, Atwell was faced with a new devastating loss.

His wife and childhood sweetheart passed away. They were married for 53 years and had been together since middle school.

"I don't know how to explain it. It's like your life is empty," he said. "Some days are bad; some days are not so bad. It's not an easy thing."

Atwell said he couldn't stand being alone in his home.

His two children, both adults and essential workers, would stop by and his neighbors are nice, but even still, the silence was too much.

"I kept saying, 'There's too many memories here, too many memories, I got to get out of here'," he said.

A recent trip to the VA in Providence and conversation about wartime camaraderie ignited his spark to fill the void with a new sidekick.

That's when he learned about Bear, who was up for adoption at the Potter League Animal Shelter in Middletown.

"I called everywhere because I wanted a German shepherd and no one had any," he said. "I called Potter League, and would you know it, they had one."

"Bill reached out to us a couple of weeks ago. He was specifically looking for a German shepherd," said Kara Montalbano, who's the director of marketing and community relations for the shelter. "It just so happened we had a dog that we had been caring for probably for a couple of weeks that came to us with an untreated infection."

Atwell scheduled a visit to check the dog out.

"I went there, and I sat on the bench outside and when he came around that corner, I thought it was my dog from Vietnam. It was like his twin. I said, 'Oh, I got to have that dog'," said Atwell.

"He was crying. It's usually much more excitement and an overwhelming feeling never usually that emotional, which I think is why we were so drawn to helping him," said Montalbano. "When he talked about his wife passing away and how he honestly felt it was his wife that brought him to us, to Bear, that made it even more meaningful to us."

After speaking with Pets for Patriots and a two-hour visit, Atwell got the green light to take Bear home.

"The way it all came together, it's almost like a miracle," he said. "I tell my friends I think my wife had something to do with this because the dog is perfect, the dog looks like Shadow."

With Bear around, Atwell said things are looking brighter.

"He’s like an angel to me. I don't mind being alone anymore," he said.

Atwell might be Bear's caretaker, but the good shepherd is returning the favor.

"What was a bad thing, I'm not going to say it's a good thing, but it's a hell of a lot better," he said. "He wants to be where and that's the way I want it. I want him to be where I am."

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