A Dog of War Finds Peace with the family of his Fallen Marine
The day before they buried their Marine son Colton in the soil of his beloved Texas, Darrell and Kathy Rusk received the last letter he wrote them from Afghanistan. “At the top,” says Kathy, “was a little smudge on which Colton wrote ‘Eli’s kisses.’ ”
Eli is a Black Lab, trained by the military to sniff out improvised explosive devices, and Colton Rusk, a 20-year-old Pfc., was his handler. The two were traveling in a convoy in dangerous Helmand province on December 6 when one of the very bombs they were seeking went off under a vehicle. When the Marines deployed on foot to secure the area, a Taliban sniper killed Colton. Eli rushed to his fallen handler, crawling on top of him to protect him and snapping at the other Marines. According to Colton’s father Darrell, Eli, in his anguish, even bit one of them.
Now Eli, like Colton, has come home to Texas, to the 20-acre spread the Rusks own in Orange Grove, near Corpus Christi. He arrived in February, and already he’s a beloved member of the Rusk family—Kathy, Darrell, and their boys Cody, 22, and Brady, 12. “He loves to play,” says Kathy. “It’s as if he’s been here all his life. He’s just a regular dog.”
After Colton was brought home and buried in December in his hometown with full military honors—and an honor guard of dogs and their handlers from law enforcement agencies and military branches—the Rusks knew they had no choice but to try to persuade the Marine Corps to let them adopt Eli. After all, as Kathy put it, “Every time Colton called home, it was always about Eli. It gave me some comfort knowing that Colton wasn’t alone over there.”
Indeed, Colton and the dog he called “my boy Eli” were an inseparable team, sharing a sleeping bag when they were on patrol and eating together back at the base after Colton discovered that dogs weren’t welcome in the mess hall. “He told a story of when they were in the chow line,” says Darrell. “One of the other Marines kicked at Eli and told Colton to get him out of there. They got into a little bit of a scuffle. From then on, Colton just took his meals outside with Eli.”
Even when a handler is killed or injured, however, it’s unusual for the military to give up one of their dogs, which cost thousands of dollars to train. But Colton’s commanding officer weighed in—as did Texas governor Rick Perry— recommending that Eli be allowed to retire and spend the rest of his days with the family of his fallen friend. The Department of Defense quickly acquiesced.
And so it was that on a blustery February day, in a simple ceremony at Lackland Air Force Base, in San Antonio—where Eli had been trained—the Rusks were handed his leash. Eli, even after the 7,000-mile trip from Afghanistan, headed straight for his new family and nuzzled them immediately. Kathy tells Cesar’s Way, “When we brought him home for the first time, he sniffed around the living room, then went straight to Colton’s room and jumped on the bed.”
Eli is settling in nicely with the Rusk’s three German Shepherds. “Sometimes,” says Kathy, “he gets a lost look on his face. You can tell by looking at his eyes that he’s sad, but he’s getting over it.
“Eli,” she continues, “has brought a lot of comfort to us—and he seems to know when you need it. It gets our mind off the sadness of losing Colton, just knowing we’re going to have a little piece of Colton in Eli. I wish he could talk and tell us some stories. But it’s a consolation just to know we’re going to be able to share the love we have for our son with Eli, who he loved so dearly.” She adds, “We’re Colton’s family, so it’s just right that we’re Eli’s family.”