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NEWS | Feb. 8, 2011

Fallen Marine's family adopts his best friend

By Randy Roughton Defense Media Activity-San Antonio

"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. On Feb. 3, Private Rusk's family helped 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 20-year-old Private Rusk was killed Dec. 5 in Helmand province, Afghanistan, by Taliban sniper fire, Marines officials told Darrell and Kathy Rusk, his parents, that Eli, his infantry explosives detector dog, crawled on top of their son to protect him after he was shot. The Rusks drove to Lackland Air Force Base from their home in Orange Grove, Texas, along with their sons, 22-year-old Cody and 12-year-old Brady; Private Rusk's aunt, Yvonne Rusk; and Jan Rusk and Katy and Wayne O'Neal, Private Rusk's grandparents.

Marine Staff Sgt. Jessy Eslick of the Department of Defense Military Working Dog Research and Development Section praised Eli as "a dog that brought Marines home to their families," as he handed the leash to the family. Eli immediately began licking Mrs. 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 Mrs. Rusk, 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. "He thought whatever was Colton's was Eli's."

"Like Colton said, 'what's mine is his,'" she said. "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 at Lackland AFB, is reportedly the second military 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 Al Anbar province, Iraq, on March 21, 2007. The corporal's family worked for nine months with an online petition and congressional help.

Mrs. 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 Private Rusk on working with the dog, also worked on making the adoption possible.

"It gets our mind off the sadness of losing Colton," Mrs. Rusk 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."

Private 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, Lance Cpl. Justin Rokohl, lost both legs in southern Afghanistan. Private Rusk deployed to Afghanistan on his 20th birthday, with Eli, as part of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

"He wanted to be a Marine since he was 10 years old," his mother said. "We talked to him about maybe going to college first, but he said he had to fight for his country first."

Private Rusk often told his parents how dogs like Eli were well-trained at the DOD Military Working Dog School at Lackland AFB, and in South Carolina, where he was trained as an improvised explosive device detector dog handler.

"We've had dogs all of our lives," Mr. 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 Private 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 Private Rusk's sleeping bag. They even ate together outside after Private 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," Mr. Rusk 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 Private 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, as well as their horses and three German shepherds.

Jan Rusk, Private Rusk's grandmother, said this was another way to honor his memories, 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.