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Rachel Lee, 42, remembers all too clearly the moment in March 2007 when two uniformed Marines arrived at her door to tell her that her elder son, Marine Corporal Dustin Lee, 20, had been killed in Iraq. "This can't happen. My firstborn child can't be dead," she remembers thinking. "I saw flashes of his life, like watching a movie in fast-forward: being in labor with him, his childhood, his senior year."
As she and Dustin's dad, Jerome, 49, sat in their Quitman, Mississippi, living room absorbing the news, a thought pushed through her numbness, one that gave her a jolt of hope: She would bring home Lex, the bomb-sniffing dog who was Dustin's constant companion and had been at his side at the end. "Dustin and Lex had been so close. We knew it was what Dustin would have wanted us to do."
Rachel says that Dustin was always deeply connected to animals -- just like his mom, who herself had worked with search-and-rescue dogs. Because of that and a family tradition of military service, Rachel wasn't the least bit surprised when Dustin enlisted in the Marine Corps and became a dog handler. At his base in Albany, Georgia, Dustin was matched with Lex, an 8-year year-old German shepherd with one tour of duty in Iraq already under his collar.
In a war zone a dog and his handler are always together. Once deployed to Iraq, Dustin and Lex ate side by side in the mess hall, slept inches apart, and screened travel routes and buildings for hidden explosives. Dustin's e-mails home were full of news about how Lex boosted morale in the unit or how the dog seemed a little depressed from the stress of living in a war zone. "Lex was his best friend," says Rachel. When Dustin was scheduled to complete his military service, Lex would be 10 years old and perhaps ready to be retired by the Army. "He'd often make comments like, 'When I get out, I want to adopt Lex,'" remembers Rachel.
Then came March 21, 2007. Dustin and Lex were on their base in Karmah, Iraq, when a 73-millimeter rocket exploded nearby. Shrapnel hit Dustin in the chest; he died within the hour. While they were waiting for the airlift to a nearby treatment facility, Lex refused to leave his master despite his own shrapnel wounds. "Lex was practically on top of Dustin," says Rachel, who learned about her son's last moments from the soldiers who were with him. "In my mind and in my heart, Dustin's blood is running through Lex's blood because of that."
Lex was flown to a veterinary facility at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and 10 days later, at Rachel's request, the dog was brought to Mississippi to attend Dustin's funeral. With the fur along his back and tail scorched black, Lex sat quietly through the service, staring at Dustin's flag-draped coffin.
Having the German shepherd at the service gave Rachel the chance to buttonhole military officials who were at the funeral. "What about Lex?" she asked. "We want to bring him home with us."
What she didn't realize at first was how unlikely it was that her request would be granted. It takes six months and costs $15,000 to train military working dogs, and each typically works 10 years before completing its service. Lex still had at least two years to go. And there was no precedent: No military working dog had ever been adopted while still on active duty.
But Rachel couldn't fathom the idea that Lex might be sent back to Iraq again -- especially without Dustin. The German shepherd had nearly lost his tail in the attack that killed his master, and an inoperable piece of shrapnel was still lodged near his spine. "We just didn't feel like he could go through any more," she says.
Rachel also hoped that adopting Lex might help the family -- including Dustin's sister, Madyson, 16, and brother, Camryn, 14 -- heal. If only they could bring Lex home, she thought, she might feel a little joy once again.
Family members and friends made phone calls, circulated a petition to send to the Marine Corps and government officials, and started a blog about Lex. Still, for months the Lees' requests for early adoption were stalled in red tape. Finally, Representative Walter B. Jones, D-N.C., heard the Lees' story and took up their cause. "Allowing the Lee family to adopt Lex will serve as a fitting thank-you to parents who gave the ultimate gift of their son for this country," Representative Jones said later in a speech on the House floor.
In December 2007, nine months after Dustin was killed, Lex was officially given to the Lee family in a special ceremony at Dustin's old Marine Corps base in Georgia. Then, through three states and more than 350 miles, the Lees were escorted home by law enforcement officers and the Patriot Guard Riders, a group of motorcycle enthusiasts who attend the funerals of fallen soldiers. For Rachel, the line of police cars and motorcycles, headlights blazing, brought tears. It felt like she was bringing home a hero and, indeed, she was: In February 2008 Lex was given an honorary Purple Heart in a ceremony in Fort Walton, Florida. Rachel accepted the award on behalf of all military working dogs and their handlers.
Just a few weeks after Lex's homecoming, Jerome, a Mississippi highway-patrol officer and a member of the Air National Guard, was deployed to the Caribbean island of Curacao. His five-month absence (which ended in May) made Lex's presence all the more comforting. "Lex is very protective and a great watchdog," explains Madyson. "If a stranger comes up, he'll get angry and start barking. It makes me feel safe." And yet, at night, sweet as a lamb, he snuggles into bed with different family members.
For Rachel, seeing Lex sometimes reminds her of the beloved son she lost at such a young age. But most of the time she finds refuge and strength in the German shepherd. "Whenever I look at Lex, hold him, touch him, I see Dustin."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, August 2008.