http://www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/2007/12/marine_dogadoption_071203/Family wants fallen Marine’s military dog
Corps resists adoption efforts until German shepherd is retired
By Andrew Tilghman - Staff writer
Posted : Tuesday Dec 4, 2007 10:35:51 EST
When Cpl. Dustin Jerome Lee’s personal effects were shipped to his childhood home in Mississippi after his death in Iraq last spring, his family found some typical items — a laptop computer, a pair of glasses and a few photos from home.
But they also found some things not every Marine would have — several dog toys, a harness and a short, knotted piece of rope, gnawed and frayed at the ends.
Lee was a 20-year-old dog handler who spent the final months of his life with a German shepherd named Lex at his side. They were on a mission together on March 21 when a rocket-propelled grenade killed Lee. As the young Marine lay dying on a street in Fallujah, the dog nudged his handler’s face, then lay loyally at his side while a corpsman treated his fatal wounds, several Marines told his family.
More than eight months later, as members of the Lee family prepare for their first Christmas since Dustin’s death, they have a final request of the Marine Corps: permission to adopt their son’s canine partner.
“I know Dustin would want Lex to be with his family,” said Lee’s uncle, Brian Rich. “They gave their son — he made the ultimate sacrifice. If it brings his family some comfort to see the dog there, then why not?”
But Marine officials say Lex is still on active duty. The 7-year-old dog was wounded in the same explosion that killed Lee, but has fully recovered. The dog is working alongside military police, assisting with force protection at Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, Ga., where Lee was stationed.
The Lee family hasn’t seen the dog since Marines brought him to the funeral in April.
Marine Corps command is “extremely sympathetic to the Lee family’s desire to adopt the military working dog after the tragic incident that claimed the life of his handler,” said Colie Young, a base spokesman. “The command will continue to support the Lee family in the adoption process at the appropriate time, if and when Lex is found unfit for duty and appropriately screened for adoption.”
Marine Corps Headquarters is aware of the family’s request, and is “working the situation at their level,” according to 2nd Lt. Caleb Eames, a public affairs officer in Albany. Lee was the third of four military dog handlers killed since 2003.
The laws covering adoption of military dogs have evolved in recent years. During the Vietnam War, thousands of dogs were abandoned or euthanized when U.S. troops withdrew. Virtually none came home.
For decades, the military considered the dogs to be “equipment” and had no process for adopting them after they “retired.” That changed in 2000, when President Clinton signed a law allowing adoptions once the dogs could no longer perform their duties.
In 2005, Congress heard the story of Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jamie Dana, who suffered nearly fatal injuries and asked to adopt her bomb-sniffing dog. President Bush signed a law permitting early adoptions for the individual troops who have worked with the dog.
The case of the Lee family may be the first instance of a deceased handler’s family seeking to adopt a military dog. The Lee family has begun a petition drive and created a Web site to chronicle their efforts to adopt the dog.
Lex is one of about 170 dogs in the Corps, and the canines are in intense demand. Lex “is potentially saving lives by performing his mission,” Eames said.
The relationship between a dog and its handler in a combat zone is unique, said John Burnam, author of “Dog Tags of Courage: The Turmoil of War and the Rewards of Companionship.”
“When that bond finally clicks, you just sort of become one. Once the handler draws down into the level of the dog’s world and learns what the dog knows, he can really communicate with the animal,” Burnam said. “You can see, in the case of Dustin Lee, the dog didn’t get startled by the explosion and run away. The dog was wounded and bleeding, but he crawled over and pawed to get his handler’s attention.”
That dog isn't just a dog, he's a Marine. He's not done with his mission by any means.