In September of 2016, Rob Kugler got some terrible news about his beloved dog, a black lab named Bella. The bone cancer that had taken her left front leg just a year earlier had spread to her lungs and mouth. Her already terminal illness was threatening to cut her short, eight-year-long life even shorter.
Kugler, a former Marine staff sergeant struggling with his own demons, refused to accept the death sentence and decided to take his canine best friend on an epic cross-country road trip.
“This dog is alive,” Kugler wrote of his travel companion in the memoir “A Dog Named Beautiful: A Marine, a Dog, and a Long Road Trip Home” (Flatiron), out now. “It’s not her time yet.”
Bella seemed to agree. Despite her grim diagnosis, the three-legged dog had already defied the odds, living 18 months longer than the three-month life span predicted by her doctors.
“She’s my miracle dog,” writes the 36-year-old Kugler.
Their adventure, which would take them to 43 states before her death, wasn’t just to give Bella one last chance to see the world. Kugler, an Iraq War vet, went looking for answers he wasn’t finding at his home in Broken Bow, Neb.
“I can’t save Bella,” he writes. “But perhaps keeping true to my promise to stay with her until her dying breath will help to save me.”
When Kugler first learned of Bella’s diagnosis during the summer of 2015, his life was already in shambles. The Nebraska native had come from a broken home, the youngest of seven kids brought up in poverty, and struggled through much of his adulthood to find a purpose. Despite his best efforts, his marriage was falling apart and his attempts at a career — he tried everything from Hollywood actor to preschool teacher — was going nowhere.
His world had been unraveling since he returned from Iraq in 2008, where Kugler served seven months as a Marine mechanic at Al Taqaddum Air Base. “I found my place in the Marines — and I liked it,” he wrote. While serving his country, “the depressive me, the me without purpose or vision, all but melted away.”
But after being retired for medical reasons, Kugler felt lost. With no job, no wife and no sense of identity, “a deep depression overtook me,” he writes. “I spent countless hours bawling in the bathtub, wondering what would become of my life.”
Just when he thought things couldn’t get worse, he learned that Bella, the dog that he and his (now former) wife adopted shortly before he was deployed overseas, was dying of cancer. Though she was just 8 years old — most labs live to at least 12 — Bella would be gone within the year, veterinarians told him.
The advice, coming from friends and family, was all the same: “Put her down.” But Kugler had other ideas.
He and Bella got into his SUV, a Toyota 4Runner he’d nicknamed “Ruthie,” and set out for a road trip. With no particular plan or itinerary, they explored the country, staying with anybody who would have them (and sometimes sleeping in the car).
They went from Niagara Falls in Canada to the Adirondack Mountains in New York, visiting the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, drinking at the “Cheers” bar in Boston and running to the top of the Rocky steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, eventually moving west to hike through national parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite.
“Bella and I simply keep going,” Kugler writes of their journey, which stretched on for almost a year. “Keep taking pictures. Keep meeting people. Keep having conversations. Keep learning about life. Keep living to the fullest every chance we get.”
He shared photos and stories of their adventures on social media, and by 2016 he and Bella attracted a global audience, with more than 83,000 followers on Instagram. He was giving interviews on CNN, and strangers were opening their homes to him. When his car broke down outside of DC, the auto mechanics who’d been following his trip online, refused to charge Kugler.
“What you’re doing is inspiring,” they told him. “We want you to keep going.”
For Kugler, the trip was about much more than Internet fame. When he saw photos of himself and Bella in some new city, he saw a version of himself he barely recognized anymore.
“My head is held higher than it’s been in a while,” he writes. “Bella’s face looks confident, and my face looks confident too — and it hasn’t looked that way for a long time.”
The invisible third passenger on their journey was Kugler’s deceased older brother Mike, a fellow Marine killed in Iraq in 2008 when his convoy hit a roadside bomb. He was Kugler’s hero, and the reason he enlisted at all. Even worse, he was stationed just 40 miles away from Kugler in Iraq, and Kugler had reason to believe his brother was en route to see him when he was killed.
The guilt, Kugler admits, has been crushing.
His long goodbye with Bella helped Kugler reconcile what he never had a chance to do with his brother. “Losing Mike changed my whole perspective,” he told The Post. “You realize how precious time is. Bella’s diagnosis was awful but it was also a gift. I wasn’t able to be there for Mike at the end, to tell him how much he mattered to me, but I could be there for Bella.”
It pushed him to do all the things he would’ve otherwise put off till tomorrow. “I learned to treat every day like it’s my last on Earth,” he says. Along his journey, he and Bella visited several retired military friends — many of whom, just like Kugler, have dog companions of their own. It didn’t surprise Kugler, who says vets find a connection with dogs they can’t get with other non-military civilians.
“You can have a relationship with another human being, but they still have their own lives,” he says. “Even in a marriage, they have something else in their world besides you. But with a dog, you’re it. You’re their everything. Their lives are all about being with you. Those are the kind of bonds you form when you’re in the military. And it’s not like that anywhere else.”
Bella died in October 2016, and remembering that day still makes Kugler emotional.
“I don’t know if I can talk about this,” he says, his voice breaking. “She was wagging her tail right up until the end.”
Kugler remembers lying in the grass with Bella just days before she passed and daydreaming of Mike, in which he told his late brother that Bella would be joining him soon. “Mike … reassure(s) me he’ll watch her until I get there,” Kugler writes of his vivid dream. “I hand Mike Bella’s pink leash.”
Two and a half years later, Kugler still feels an absence. Not just of Bella, but the sense of purpose that came with their aimless road trip.
“One of the hardest parts of a trip like that is what to do next,” he told The Post. “It’s almost like being in the Marines and having this monumental, life-changing experience, and then coming home and everything just … stops.”
Today, he lives in Oregon and he still hasn’t figured out what he wants to do. He works odd jobs and donates his time to veteran causes while figuring out his next move.
He’s also met someone — a woman named Kristen who found him after following his and Bella’s journey on Instagram and who also traveled around the country with her own dying dog, a golden retriever named Franklin Waffles.
They’ve moved in together and have adopted two border-collie puppies, Max and Jasper, whom Kugler affectionately calls “my boys.”
But still, the guilt lingers. For his brother. For Bella. “I don’t want to wallow in the sorrow, which is so easy to do,” Kugler says. “It helps to have the boys running around the house. I feel more disconnected from the feeling that death is always around the corner. Now I’ve got the feeling of, oh my gosh, there’s so much youthful energy here. We’ve got years of this to look forward to.”
Looking back, he says his trip wasn’t about running away but “embracing the life we have left.”
“If we focus on fighting death, we can only lose,” he says. “If we focus on living life, we can only win.”
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