Earlier this year, I was party to one of the most beautiful, simple and profound acts of gratitude I have seen, in the form of a dog kiss.

Our six-year-old pit bull, PeePee Marie, was a rescue. She joined our family after spending the first two years of her life chained up in a backyard producing litters, starving, and getting the shit kicked out of her. When we found her in the shelter, she was emaciated and had a bad skin disease. Nobody wanted her. She was scheduled to be euthanized three days before we took her home. For four years, she grew with our family. She got fat. She was loved. She was our baby boy’s best friend and constant protector.

Then she got sick. We couldn’t save her. I put her in the truck and drove to the vet’s office. I sat on floor looking into her dilated, doped up eyes. Mine stung with tears and uncertainty. How do I say goodbye to a family member I am having killed? How do I explain to a two-year-old that his best friend is gone and not coming back? I closed my eyes for a couple seconds and felt a dry, weak, sandpaper tongue gently scrape the tip of my nose. I opened my eyes and saw hers. There was no doubt, no fear. Just gratitude. Her kiss said, “thank you.” I don’t know what she remembered from her life, but it was clear she knew it was horrible and scary, then one day, not.

As I returned home, I was alone, save for a jingling pink collar. That pitiful, thankful lick was fresh on my mind. It was gratitude in its most basic form: showing appreciation for kindness.

Related: 7 things you probably never knew about Thanksgiving and the military »

As Thanksgiving approaches, I look back on what has been a big year for my family: We lost a dog, sold a house, rented a truck, and moved across the country and bought a new house, just to try it out. I graduated from college, quit a job I loved and found one I love even more. Things are going well for us right now, but I had a lot of help along the way. My wife has been my rock, and I am ever-grateful for the way she motivates me and drives me to succeed, but there have been earlier torchbearers who are consolidated under one umbrella. My dog kiss lands on the nose of Ol’ Chesty Puller himself — my biggest thanks of all goes to the Marine Corps.

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I served in the Marines as a combat correspondent. I was a journalist and photographer. While enlisted, I learned how to write, edit, conduct interviews, shoot photos and design publications. These skills interested me, and I decided to study them further. I was able to attend advanced classes to enhance my skills. In four years, I received invaluable training and job experience people fresh from college couldn’t match. For years after my enlistment ended, I was able to work and excel in high levels of my field without a diploma. I have the military to thank for that.

To go along with my job skills and experience, the government gave me a wonderful stack of benefits. I know we all earned our benefits, some sacrificed more than others, but that’s not the reason we signed up. We joined to serve, and the benefits are just icing on our proverbial MRE poundcake.

I get health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Yeah, the VA sucks bad, but it’s there as a fallback. A huge help for my family has been the VA home loan. Being able to purchase a home with nothing down and no primary mortgage insurance made it possible for us to get involved in real estate at a young age and prosper.

While the home loan is pretty awesome, it’s not even the best benefit. That would be the post-9/11 G.I. Bill. That thing is amazing! It pays for your school, pays for your books, and pays you a lot of money to go to school. The G.I. Bill housing allowance was immensely helpful in bolstering the savings of my young family. It helped us afford a good house, and it sustained us during a long job hunt. And I got a free degree from a good school. That degree helped me bust through the glass ceiling I finally reached professionally. Being completely free of student debt also cycles back to the caliber of home we were able to buy. While things could always be better in our government and country, we are truly fortunate to have served where we are taken care of.

Most importantly, I’ve crossed paths with some special people in, and out of the military. Friends, mentors, bosses, former bosses who became future friends. Relationships, man. When I was a young Marine, I had some leaders who saw something in me and helped me cultivate my skills. They nudged me in certain directions and took me under their camouflaged wings. They showed me how to have passion for, and take pride in my work. It was true mentorship that I will always value. I crossed paths with former leaders after my enlistment ended, which led to gainful employment when things seemed bleak. Years after my separation, I encountered civilian leaders who didn’t know me in service, but still played a part in my development. For these people, I am grateful. Thank you to the friends I’ve made,  those I’ve lost and those regained over the years. We are bound by our willingness to fight and die for others, but some of us are lucky enough to have formed even deeper, truer connections. Those will be my friends forever, and I am so grateful for that.

I truly don’t know how my life would be without the Marine Corps. It shaped my entire life, blazed my entire trail through adult life — my career, my hobbies, my friends. I even met my wife because I had been stationed in San Diego.

When I was a young man, my life was uncertain and scary, then one day, not. Dog kisses all around.

Happy Thanksgiving and Semper Fi.