Since the time of Imperial Rome man has gone to war with dogs by his side. In those barbaric days war dogs were unleashed to thin the enemy line and strike fear in their hearts. There was no thought to the dogs well being or to his other innate abilities, only the strength of is jaws, the sharpness of his teeth, and the viciousness of his heart.
Today we have a different relationship with our war dogs. They are valued as fellow soldiers and Marines, as special warriors with exceptional and unique skills. Their wounds are tended and their futures provided for. And it is an investment well worth the expense. Since WWII, war dogs have demonstrated their invaluable skills and devotion to their handlers. Their keen sense of smell could detect an ambush or sniper, and they could actually hear the wind “singing” across booby trap trip wires. Being more in tuned with their instincts, the could sense things that even the most combat experienced grunt would miss. There is the story of the Army dog handler in Viet Nam who received a new war dog, a rambunctious and stubborn German Shepherd. War dogs were in constant demand and the handler found his self on point with a dog who seemingly refused to listen to his commands. Moving through a field the dog would guide left, then right, going his own direction and ignoring the handler, who found his self along for the ride, as was the platoon following them. When they had crossed the field the platoon commander called a halt and approached the dog handler, who braced himself for an ass chewing of monumental proportions. Instead, the Lieutenant praised him and his dog for avoiding all of the mines and booby traps that his men had found at every “undisciplined” turn the dog had made. Later in his tour the same handler lay exposed and wounded in the middle of a firefight. The rambunctious Shepherd grabbed his LBE gear with his teeth and pulled him to safety. He then covered the handler with his own body and took five rounds that would have hit him instead. That kind of bond is as deep as any bond shared between men in combat. One such bond has come full circle this week.
Cpl. Dustin J. Lee enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2004, like so many others straight out of high school. Born in Quitman Mississippi on April 7th, 1986, he had been raised with a sense of duty and service by his father Jerome, a Mississippi Highway Patrolman, and Rachel, a school teacher.
Cpl. Lee was a War Dog Handler stationed at Marine Corps Logistics Base, Albany Georgia, and was assigned to the 3rd Reconnaissance Bn, II MEF for his deployment to Iraq. On March 21st 2007 he and his war dog Lex were conducting a patrol in the Fallujah area with 3rd Platoon, G Battery, 3rd Bn. 14th Marines. Lex was an explosives sniffing dog, and he and Cpl. Lee’s job was simple, smell out IED’s and save Marines lives. Both Cpl. Lee and Lex had just six weeks left on their tour.
During combat operations that day a mortar round impacted and sent white hot shrapnel into Cpl. Lee’s chest. Lex was also wounded by the same blast. Both were medevaced, and while Lex survived, 20 year old Cpl. Lee did not. He would have turned 21 on April 7th.
Cpl. Lee was laid to rest on Saturday April 1st 2007.
Lex, recovered from his wounds, was also there.
The Lee family felt the same bond that Cpl. Lee and Lex had felt and decided to adopt 8 year old war dog. The problem was that Lex still had two years of military service left. In the history of the Marine Corps War Dog program, no dog had ever been retired early so he could be adopted out. That did not deter the Lee family however.
Rachel Lee, Dustin’s mother, believes her son’s spirit lives on through Lex because of their close bond, because they were wounded together and because Lex was there as Dustin died.
“It was blood on blood,” she said. “We can’t get Dustin back, but we have Lex.”
They lobbied the Marine Corps for months, even involving their congressman in the effort. It paid off and on Friday December 21st, exactly 9 months after Dustin was killed, Lex was retired from the Corps and adopted by the Lee family during a ceremony at MCLB Albany GA, .
Col. Christian Haliday, commander of the Marine Corps Logistics Base in Albany said during the ceremony “Nobody can do anything to replace the void in this family. We hope Lex can bring a small piece of his spirit and help maintain his memory.”
As she played with Lex after the ceremony, Madison, Dustin’s 16 year old sister said “It’s not going to bring back my brother, but it’s something close to it,”
At Cpl. Lee’s funeral, Jerome his father was asked by a reporter that despite the “tragedy” of Dustin’s death, if he was still proud of him. He replied “Most definitely. I’m very proud of him.”
And so should we all be. Proud of Dustin, of Lex, and of all the warriors who stand, and fall, so that we may live safe, free and secure. And so that others, who have suffered under tyranny, may taste the sweet nectar of freedom so many here have come to take for granted.
As a good friend told me “We had better stay the fuck in this thing and win it this time so these kinds of precious, unmatchable lives won’t have been wasted.”
The Lee family has established a memorial website to Cpl. Dustin Lee. Look at the photos there and remember him, and all those we have lost.
Their sacrifice can not, and will not, be in vain.