Sacrifice. Pain. Wounds, both seen and unseen. They are all an unfortunate fact of war.
Daily, soldiers take to the battlefield to protect Americans and their freedoms. Often, those soldiers see and experience a lifetime of things that leave them scarred and fighting inner demons. And sometimes, those mental and physical battle scars lead them to what they think is the only way out: suicide.
But sometimes, they are able to fight back from the edge, as Army veteran Joshua Marnio was.
As a soldier, the decorated, Purple Heart recipient fought with his own demons, and was close to that ledge. But never did he expect it would be a small cat who helped show him the path toward healing.
When he arrived in the Iraqi capital, Marino was stationed in what soldiers had nicknamed “Mortarville” because of all the constant shell fire. Despite that, Marino said soldiers had a “pretty well-built up system” and a routine way of life.
Three months into his tour, Marino said he was walking back to base when, he was caught off guard. “All of a sudden, there was a massive explosion on the other side of the wall and showered me with rocks,” he recalled.
Marino said he remembered running over to a concrete bunker to seek shelter, but it was too late. He had already been hit by the flying debris. He was sent to the medical center to get checked out and was physically intact. However, it was a diagnosis of multiple concussions and a Traumatic Brain Injury that would do the most damage.
In the Army, Marino said, there's often a “Suck-it-up and drive on” mentality. “If you don’t look like you’re injured, there must not be anything wrong,” he said. In Marino’s case, his injury wasn’t considered severe enough to be sent home, and he was told to “soldier on.”
But, as it turned out, there was something wrong.
Marino returned from his tour of duty to Ft. Riley in Kansas in May of 2008. After a while, Marino said he was dealing with memory loss and concentration and focus issues. “I was waking up and going to sleep with headaches,” he said. “It really tests your metal when nobody believes you. It gets to the point where it felt like no one understands.”
It also got to the point where Marino said felt like he didn’t have anything to live for.
Marino, who always thought he would continue his career in the military, said he was beginning to feel increasingly out of place among his peers, who didn’t really understand what was going on internally.
“I thought I was damaged goods,” he remembered thinking. “I knew that I wasn’t, and it got to the point where I was ready to end it.”
Marino said he was ready to act on that feeling in the middle of winter in 2008 and composed a suicide letter on his computer for people to find after he was gone. He had just stepped outside to enjoy one last beer and cigarette, when the last thing he ever expected happened.
“I saw this little cat under the bushes,” Marino said, remembering the moment he heard feline's mewling. Immediately, it snapped him out of what he had resolved to do. “I thought, ‘Someone did care.’ Something with a warm heart and soft fur came up to lend a hand, and it really did help.”
Marino described the cat’s sudden appearance as “providence,” and said the black-and-white stray cat came up to him and just “wanted to know what I was doing,” he said. “It made me break down, and after that I deleted the note on my computer.”
Day by day, the little cat continued to return. And for weeks, Marino would open a can of tuna outside his barrack and wait for his new friend Scout the Tuxedo cat – and several other strays – to join him.
“It was almost like a ritual,” he chuckled. “Even if I had a rotten day, I would watch them do their thing.”
Marino recalled how Scout would jump into his lap and sit, content, while the other strays didn't care to be bothered. Those daily visits, though, were instrumental with helping to guide his life back into a positive direction.
“It was a complete 180,” Marino said. “He restored something in me that was lost.”
Eventually, though, animal control officials returned to scoop up the stray cats around the barracks, including his little Tuxedo cat Scout. Marino said it was sad to see the cat, who had become a friend to him, go. But by then, he had already begun reaching out to a long-time friend from high school, Becky. Someone who he would later propose to on New Year's Eve.
Marino fully attributes his relationship with Becky, now his wife, to Scout. He strongly believes that without the cat’s help, he would not be where he is today, let alone be alive.
“If it wasn’t for Scout I wouldn’t be around,” he stated matter-of-factly. “If It wasn’t for him, I wouldn't even have started up a conversation with my wife.”
Now married, Marino said was in a much better place. But as it turned out, “providence” would once again step in in his life in an unexpected way.
One day, Marino and his wife were strolling the grounds of Ft. Riley, enjoying the day. There happened to be an adopt-a-thon going on.
“They had all theses animals and we were just looking around,” he recalled. “All of a sudden, this little black paw shot out, and it was Scout!” The little Tuxedo cat that saved him in a moment of great need had found his way back into Marino’s life.
Seeing it as a sign of fate, he told the the pet adoption folks: “I want to adopt this cat right now.” And so he did.
Eventually, Marino, Becky and Scout made their way back to his hometown in Pittsburgh, Penn., where he returned to school to learn how to help other veterans who may be in a similar situations.
While it's certainly a departure from what he used to do in the Army – a satellite communications operator – Marino said leading programs that help vets to address their mental health and transition back into the civilian world is special to him.
“I want to be there for them. I’ve been in the same position they’ve been in,” he said. “I get to help people, and that’s what I want my life to be about.”
For several years, Scout continued to be there Marino, though Marino and his wife opened their home to more pets. “I always was an animal lover,” he chuckled. “Growing up, my family had ducks, pet chickens. We always had animals in our house. Any critters that wandered in were always welcome.”
Scout was a constant companion for Marino, always running to greet him whenever he came back home from work. Until a late-August day in 2011, one that shook his world both both literally and figuratively.
Marino remembers the day had already been strange -- it was the same day a 5.8 earthquake sent tremors from Virginia up and down the east coast. The strangeness continued even after he got home. That day, he recalled, instead of seeing a blur of black and white fur running to his side, “I remember he slowly made his way down,” Marino said.
Instinctively, he knew something was off, and a check with the vet would confirm his suspicions. “They ran blood tests, and it turned out Scout had Leukemia,” Marino said. Vets only gave the cat about 10 days to live.
Marino made the tough decision to keep Scout alive (“I could not stand the thought of taking him to euthanize him. I didn’t want to kill him.”) and determined he would make the best of the time left. Marino doted on Scout and took him to do some of his favorite things -- especially letting him roll around in the grass: “He loved that,” Marino said.
Finally, the night came where it was time to say good-bye.
“One night,” Marino said, “he wasn’t able to catch his breath and he just kind of laid down on the floor.” Knowing it was time, the soldier took the Tuxedo cat into his arms, where he took his last breath.
Though Marino said no pet could ever come close to replacing Scout, he said the best thing he could do is to never forget what his “battle buddy” did for him. ‘I’m going to remember him. That’s honoring his legacy,” Marino said. “He was my buddy and my best friend.”
It also helped that he’s got a new furry friend named Theo who follows him around everywhere. “He thinks he’s a dog in a cat suit,” Marino joked. “I’d like to think there’s a piece of Scout in him.”
In the years since losing Scout, Marino has continued his work of helping other vets. He said he didn’t really think of sharing his personal story publicly, until his wife first brought his attention to the Mutual Rescue organization.
The group is dedicated to exploring how animals can rescue people just as much as humans rescue them. He said his wife told him Mutual Rescue was accepting testimonial stories from people and urged him to submit his. Marino said he wasn’t expecting anything to come out of him submitting his story, but he liked to write and figured there would be no harm in submitting an essay. A few weeks later, he got a call back and was accepted.
The group put together a video of his and Scout’s journey of healing and friendship, which is now streaming on Mutual Rescue’s website. Marino said while doing the project has been therapeutic in a sense, he hopes it will serve as a greater example of how veterans living with PTSD can reach out for help.
“It’s been a tear jerker – I’ve had to relieve through some tough times,” he admitted. “(But) I did it to tell a story that needed to be told.”
“Don’t be afraid to talk to someone,” he continued. “It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help. It’s a mark of your own humanity...Give yourself the opportunity to be helped.”
The video now serves as a lasting testimony to the Tuxedo cat who helped bring a soldier back from the edge, and taught lessons about life, friendship and love.
“He did his job, and did it well,” Marino said. “Sometimes your pets are the ones who teach you about your own humanity. They teach you about who you are.”