Johnny Brooks Stevenson, Jr., wrapped his arms around his wife, holding her one last time before leaving their Hinesville, Ga., home.
“Girl, I’ll be alright. I’ll see you in six months,” he said.
Stevenson Jr. -- or "Pops" as most people called the father of two -- served in the U.S. Army for more than 20 years, including in Operation Desert Storm and Desert Shield. He retired from the military as a staff sergeant in 2000, at age 40, but when the war in Afghanistan began and many in his community were deployed, Pops decided to leave for Afghanistan in January of this year to work as a contractor at Camp Dwyer in the Helmand River Valley.
"I got the phone call on February 15th, and they basically told me that he had fallen to the ground," recalled Belinda Stevenson, his wife of 29 years.
"He was my everything," Belinda said of her husband, who was 51 years old. "He was my best friend, he is my soul mate. He will be my soul mate for eternity."
Even now, she said, it is almost impossible for her to accept: "I think because he was over there when he passed away, sometimes I think, 'You know what, he's still going to walk back through that door.'"
Pops had vibrant green eyes and a mischievous personality, and loved the outdoors, Belinda said. Wherever he was -- working on his motorcycles, sweeping his patio or raking leaves off the lawn -- his dog Savannah was always by his side.
"She would grab the water hose from him and she would basically run after him with the water hose, getting herself soaking wet," recalled Belinda.
When Pops died, Savannah was a constant reminder of her beloved owner. But in May, a powerful storm blew over the fence in the family's backyard, and the ever-adventurous Savannah ran away.
"I felt like when I lost Savannah I lost another part of my husband," said Belinda.
"That dog was something he cherished," said their son, Terrell Stevenson, 24. "For her to have gotten away, it just hurt everybody in our family."
Searching for Savannah
Terrell drove around the Hinesville area all night in search of Savannah, and went from one animal shelter to another trying to find their three-year-old husky. They were turned away at their local animal control center with no good news.
But weeks later, as Terrell was scanning Facebook animal rescue pages, a blue-eyed, white-tailed husky caught his eye. Savannah's photo had been posted on the Facebook page for Carpathia Paws, an animal rescue, as a missing dog who would be euthanized if she didn't find a home. But they soon discovered Savannah had been placed in a foster home in New Jersey. Two hours before she was to be put down, Julie Ogden of West Wood , N.J., had stepped up and offered her home to the missing husky. From the first night that Savannah slept at the Ogden home -- and took her place right on the bed -- they knew she had an owner who cared for her.
"Somebody really loved this dog. You could tell she really trusted people. So we were kind of wondering how she ended up in animal control when she did have a loving home," said Ogden, who volunteers for The Last Resort Rescue.
Terrell found Ogden on Facebook, but instead of making the trek to New Jersey, Ogden drove Savannah all the way to Georgia as part of a caravan to raise awareness about shelter animals that are euthanized when owners cannot be found.
The cars, trucks and vans arrived in Hinesville on July 14th, accompanied by the roar of a dozen motorcycle engines from the same bike group that gave Pops his nickname.
As Savannah took a hesitant step out of the trailer that had carried her for the 14-hour journey, Belinda knelt to the ground, exclaiming, "Oh! Savannah! Savannah!" Within minutes, Savannah was surrounded by the family that had loved her and lost her, blanketed in hugs and receiving pats on the head from all directions.
'I'm getting a little piece of Pops back'
Savannah now has her old yard back, and with a newly installed fence and kennel. For the Stevenson family, it's not just a pet that has been returned home.
"It's like I'm getting a piece of him back, I'm getting a little piece of Pops back. I really am. And that does my heart so much good," said Belinda.The Stevensons found another silver lining in these recent tragedies: both the passing of Pops and Savannah's disappearance led them toward a new mission in life.
Terrell is following in his father's footsteps: he has already completed two tours in Iraq with the Army and is now stationed at Hinesville's Fort Stewart. When his father died, Belinda asked Terrell to create the program for the service, and the hours he spent carefully designing each word and photo reminded him of his passion for graphic design.
"The way I grieved was through graphic design, because I was creating things for my dad, things my dad had inspired me to do," he said. Terrell recently applied to the Savannah College of Art and Design, and is now pursuing a career as a graphic designer.
Though it felt like a tragedy at the time, Belinda now sees Savannah's disappearance as "divine intervention." Caring for animals has since become her mission.
"There's so many dogs out there that are mistreated and need good homes," said Belinda. "I just feel like my mission in life is going to be to do whatever I have to do, one day at a time, to make it better for these animals."
Today, in the Stevenson home, Pops' coffee mug is in the same place as it always has been by the coffee maker. His clothes hang neatly in the closet. And now, thanks to animal rescuers and a woman 800 miles away with a heart for huskies, there's a loyal husky sitting by her family's side, right where she belongs.
The Stevenson family will continue working with animal rescues like Carpathia Paws, and they are even planning a charity motorcycle ride and doggy fashion show on September 8th called "Paws for Pops."