Family adopts slain son’s military dog, in first-time arrangement

Published 12:05 am Sunday, December 23, 2007

A military working dog wounded in Iraq during a rocket attack that killed its Marine handler was adopted Friday by the slain Marine’s family.

The adoption of Lex, an 8-year-old German Shepherd, by the family of fallen Marine Cpl. Dustin Lee marked the first time the U.S. military has granted early retirement to a working dog so it could live with a former handler’s family, officials said.

“Nobody can do anything to replace the void in this family,” said Col. Christian Haliday, commander of the Marine Corps Logistics Base in Albany, where Lee and Lex were assigned. “We hope Lex can bring a small piece of his spirit and help maintain his memory.”

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On hand for the ceremony at the base were the Marine’s parents, Jerome and Rachael Lee, his sister, Mattie, 16, and brother, Cameron, 12, of Quitman, Miss.

“It’s not going to bring back my brother, but it’s something close to it,” said Mattie Lee as she played with Lex after the ceremony.

Lee’s family planned to take the bomb-sniffing dog home on Saturday.

Military officials initially told the family that Lex had another two years of service before he could be adopted. The family lobbied for months — even enlisting the aid of U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., whose district includes Camp Lejeune — and the adoption came exactly nine months after the 20-year-old Marine was killed and his dog wounded on March 21 in Iraq’s Anbar Province.

“There’s a special bond between a man and his animal. This is the right thing to do,” Jones said Friday at the ceremony.

2nd Lt. Caleb Eames, spokesman for the Albany base, said Lee and Lex were sitting outside at a forward operating base in Karmah when they were hit by shrapnel from a 73mm rocket explosion.

“A part of Dustin is in Lex,” said the fallen Marine’s father. “To have Lex at home is a part of having Dustin at home.”

Rachael Lee said she believes her son’s spirit will live on through the dog because of their close bond and because they were together during the final moments of her son’s life.

“It was blood on blood,” she said. “We can’t get Dustin back, but we have Lex.”

While Marines tried to treat Lee’s wounds, another dog handler was sent to take Lex for treatment, said Staff Sgt. Dana Brown, the regional kennel master for the pair in Iraq.

“Lex, from my understanding, was kind of laying on him or near him, protecting him,” Brown said in an interview from the Quantico Marine Base in Virginia. “He just didn’t want to leave him. He knew he belonged there and something was wrong. Even though he was hurting, he knew he was supposed to stay by his handler.”

Brown flew back with Lex to Camp Lejeune, N.C., where the dog’s wounds were treated and she accompanied Lex to Lee’s funeral in April. After 12 weeks of treatment for shrapnel wounds in the shoulder and back, Lex was declared fit for duty and returned to his permanent home at the Albany base.

Brown said Lee and Lex stood out among more than 40 bomb-sniffing dog teams under her supervision, and they performed so well she chose them and one other team to be embedded full-time with specialized units — a Marine reconnaissance unit in Lee’s case. It was Lex’s second tour in Iraq, the first with another handler.

“He was cocky,” Brown said of Lee. “He knew he was good and he and his dog were unstoppable.”

Lee joined the Marines after graduating from high school in 2004. His father said his desire to become a dog handler came from the Marine’s mother, who worked with search-and-rescue dogs when Lee was a boy.

After completing military police and dog handler training, Lee was assigned to the Albany base in southwestern Georgia. He adopted his first partner, Doenja, and sent him home to Mississippi last year when that 11-year-old dog began losing his sight and had to retire.

“Lex is in wonderful shape,” said Eames. “He’s fully operational. His most important mission now is making this wonderful family very happy.”