GALWAY — After spending 47 days helping the people of Puerto Rico recover from the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria, John Cox decided to bring home a friendly reminder of the experience.
A staff sergeant and transportation specialist with the 109th Airlift Wing in Glenville, Cox developed a close bond with a mixed-breed dog during his time in Puerto Rico, and when it was time to leave, he felt like he had no choice but to bring her home.
“Her name is Maria, and she was very emaciated when I first met her,” said Cox, a Galway resident and Saratoga Springs native. “After a few days, she was following me around. She would go wherever I went. By that time, I was pretty drawn to and committed to the animal, so I made the decision to get her home with me one way or another.”
Maria actually got home sooner than Cox. While he flew on a military plane from Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, into the Stratton Air National Guard Base on Nov. 22, Maria’s trip started three days earlier on a FedEx flight from San Juan to Newark International Airport in New Jersey.
“I looked through the regulations to see if she could fly home with me, but I ran into a brick wall,” said Cox, who was one of eight members of the 109th who left for Puerto Rico on Oct. 12. “It’s a pretty black-and-white situation. If you are a military member and you’re going from one permanent station to another permanent station, you could bring a dog with you. But there’s nothing there that says you can adopt an animal in a relief situation. So, I had to find another avenue to bring her back.”
With the help of “Out of the Pits,” an Albany-based non-profit, Maria got her flight to the U.S. Then, Cox enlisted the help of a close friend who lives in the Bronx, who picked up Maria at the airport and drove her to Saratoga Springs, where he deposited Maria with Cox’s mother.
“Maria jumped right into the front seat of my friend’s car and was dropped off at my mother’s house,” said Cox. “It worked out well. He was coming home to upstate New York, so I got the rental car for my friend and he picked her up. Maria was great during the ride up here, and then my mom kept an eye on her for a few days. She said she was great.”
Cox said his initial experience with Maria made him pretty comfortable the dog wasn’t going to be a problem for anyone.
“We slept and worked at the airfield pretty much the whole time, so other than going for a ride in a helicopter to drop off supplies, we didn’t leave this 100-yard area by the airfield,” said Cox. “I had heard this dog barking in this small building and decided to check it out. At first, I brought her some beef jerky and she seemed like a gentle, well-trained dog. Eventually, I got her to eat out of my hand. It took three or four days, but then she ventured out of the building a little bit, and I began to realize that she really was quite a sweet dog.”
The fact that Maria is part pit bull didn’t bother Cox in the slightest.
“I know some people have a misconception about pit bulls, but I did trust this dog right away,” said Cox, who joined the Air National Guard soon after graduating from Saratoga Springs High School in 2011. “I had grown up with dogs, but this is my first animal that I’ve had on my own as an adult, and I feel like I know what I’m doing. When Maria started following me around, it was a pretty loud and fast-paced environment with a lot of stimulus where you could see a dog feeling uncomfortable. But she would just wag her tail and lie down next to wherever I was. She seemed to be able to express this attitude of gratefulness.”
Cox said Maria might not have been able to survive if he had left her in Puerto Rico.
“I have done some Sandy relief help, and I have been deployed overseas in the desert,” he said. “But I’ve never seen devastation on the scale that Hurricane Maria caused in Puerto Rico. Maria was obviously displaced after the hurricane wiped out the island. I couldn’t leave her; it wouldn’t have ended well for her.”