A True War Hero
A Jolt of Hope
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.