Fallen Marine's Family Adopts His Best Friend
By Randy Roughton
Defense Media Activity-San Antonio
LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, Texas, Feb. 4, 2011 "Whatever is mine is his," Marine Corps Pfc. Colton W. Rusk wrote about Eli, his military working dog, in the final days of their deployment in Afghanistan.
Brady Rusk, 12, gets a somber kiss from Eli, a bomb-sniffing military working dog, during a retirement and adoption ceremony at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, Feb. 3, 2011. The Labrador retriever was assigned to Brady's older brother, Marine Corps Pfc. Colton Rusk, who was killed in Afghanistan. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Yesterday, Rusk's family helped to prove his words true when they adopted the black Labrador retriever in a retirement and adoption ceremony at the military working dog school here.
After Rusk, 20, was killed Dec. 5 in Afghanistan’s Helmand province by Taliban sniper fire, Marine Corps officials told Darrell and Kathy Rusk, his parents, that Eli, the young Marine’s infantry explosives detector dog, crawled on top of their son to protect him after he was shot.
The Rusks drove here from their home in Orange Grove, Texas, along with their sons -- Cody, 22, and Brady, 12 -- as well as Rusk's aunt, Yvonne Rusk, and his grandparents, Jan Rusk and Katy and Wayne O'Neal.
Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Jessy Eslick of the Defense Department’s military working dog research and development section handed the leash to the family, praising Eli as "a dog that brought Marines home to their families."
Eli immediately began licking Kathy Rusk's palms and fell into the arms of his former handler's father.
"In his last letter we got the day before we buried him, at the very top was a little smudge that said 'Eli's kisses,'" said the fallen Marine’s mother, who wore a two-sided pendant with a photo of her son on one side and another snapshot of him with Eli on the other. "[Colton] thought whatever was [his] was Eli's. "We're Colton's family, so it's just right that we're Eli's family now."
Eli, who was trained in the military working dog program here, reportedly is the second working dog the Marines discharged to permit adoption by a fallen handler's family. Cpl. Dustin J. Lee's family adopted his German shepherd, Lex, after the Quitman, Miss., Marine died from wounds he received in a mortar attack in Iraq’s Anbar province March 21, 2007. The corporal's family worked for nine months with an online petition and congressional help to secure the adoption.
Kathy Rusk said her family didn't have as many obstacles in their quest to adopt Eli. Texas Gov. Rick Perry started the process of working with the Marines on the dog's discharge, and Scooter Kelo, who trained Eli and also taught Rusk on working with the dog, also helped to make the adoption possible.
"It gets our mind off the sadness of losing Colton," she said, "just knowing we're going to have a little piece of Colton in Eli. I just wished he could talk and tell us some stories. Just to know we're going to be able to share the love we have for our son with something that he loved dearly."
Rusk joined the Marines after he graduated from Orange Grove High School and committed himself to the Marines the same week that his best friend, Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Justin Rokohl, lost both legs in southern Afghanistan. Rusk deployed to Afghanistan on his 20th birthday, with Eli, as part of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment, from Camp Pendleton, Calif.
"He wanted to be a Marine since he was 10 years old," his mother said of her fallen son. "We talked to him about maybe going to college first, but he said he had to fight for his country first."
Rusk often told his parents how dogs like Eli were well-trained here and in South Carolina, where he was trained as a bomb detector dog handler.
"We've had dogs all of our lives," Darrell Rusk said. "Since all of the boys were babies, they had one. Colton was probably the better handler of the bunch. When he went to train in South Carolina, he said, 'Dad, we don't know how to train dogs. These dogs here will bring you a beer, they'll open the can for you, but sometimes they'll drink it for you, too.' He said that was how well-trained the dogs were, and he was really amazed how much you can do with a dog once you've worked with them."
The dog Rusk liked to call "My boy, Eli" earned a reputation for wanting to be wherever his handler was. Eli didn't want to sleep on the ground; he slept in Rusk's sleeping bag. They even ate together outside after Rusk found out that Eli wasn't allowed to eat in the chow hall.
"He told a story of when they were in the chow line one time," the fallen Marine’s father said. "One of the Marines kicked at the dog one time and told him to get the dog out. Colton and the Marine got into a little scuffle. They told Colton he could stay inside and leave the dog outside, but from then on, Colton and Eli ate outside. That's how tight he and the dog were."
The family met Eli once when they visited Rusk at Camp Pendleton the week he deployed. After the retirement and adoption ceremony, the Rusks took Eli to their home on more than 20 acres of land, which he will share with the family, their horses and three German shepherds.
Jan Rusk said this was another way to honor her grandson’s memory, but it also will help the family as they continue to cope with their loss.
"Eli was a part of Colton, and now they have a little part of Colton back," she said.