Bomb Dog Tried to Shield Master from Taliban Snipers
By Mike Joseph
502nd Air Base Wing OL-A Public Affairs
LACKLAND AFB, Texas (Feb. 2, 2011) – Eli, the black Labrador retriever, appeared to be like any other of his breed – vivacious, playful and loving.
But appearances, like first impressions, can be misleading.
Eli, was a bomb dog. Specially trained to locate improvised explosive devices, the 4-year-old former Military Working Dog now belongs to the family of his former master, Marine Pfc. Colton Rusk, who was shot and killed by Taliban sniper fire in Afghanistan.
Now, Eli is only the second dog to be adopted by a fallen servicemember’s family.
The dog became a formal member of the Rusk family after the U.S. Marine Corps completed the final adoption steps at Lackland Feb. 3, sending Eli to his new home in South Texas.
“We’re going to share the love that we have for our son with something he loved dearly,” said Kathy Rusk, Pfc. Rusk’s mother, her voice wavering, fighting back the waves of emotion.
It was a fateful day on foreign soil more than two months ago which led to the emotional exchange of Eli between the Marine Corps and Pfc. Rusk’s family last week.
“Colton and Eli were a team,” Marine Staff Sgt. Jessy Esclick said during the exchange. “Eli will forever be remembered by the Marine Corps as a dog that brought Marines home to their families. He is now a part of the Rusk family.”
On Dec. 6, 2010, in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Taliban gunfire struck Pfc. Rusk just after he had secured Eli to his leash.
The specially-trained Lab had located improvised explosive devices prior to the attack. All of Eli’s explosive-finding skills couldn’t stop the three Taliban bullets from taking his 20-year-old handler’s life. Eli had instinctively crawled atop his slain handler when he fell to the ground.
“It had given me some comfort knowing Colton wasn’t alone over there,” said Mrs. Rusk, flanked by husband Darrell, 22-year-old son Cody, and 12-year-old son Brady.
The process to unite Eli with the family was swift. The involvement of Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Scooter Kelo, Eli’s trainer and Pfc. Rusk’s instructor, helped speed the adoption procedure.
Eli is no stranger to the Rusks. The family met Eli at Camp Pendleton, Calif., the week their son and Eli deployed last fall. As during training, Eli remained the main topic of telephone conversations, letters, e-mails and Facebook posts after deployment.
“He’d call home and everything was about Eli and how Eli thought everything was his,” said Mrs. Rusk.
Eli and Pfc. Rusk shared a cot in Afghanistan because Eli refused to sleep on the floor. If they slept outside, Eli could be found curled up in his handler’s sleeping bag. When Eli wasn’t allowed in a dining hall during training, Pfc. Rusk and Eli shared meals together outside.
The young Marine was only doing what came natural.
“We’ve had dogs all our lives,” said Mr. Rusk. “When the boys were babies, they’d basically have a dog chewing on their diaper.”
Eli now has plenty of acreage to roam on outside of Orange Grove along with three German shepherds.
“I’m sure he’ll stay in the house with mom all the time,” Mr. Rusk said about Eli and his wife. “I’ll probably get kicked out of bed this evening (the day they took Eli home).”
“Colton would have loved knowing that (we were adopting Eli),” said his mother. “Like Colton said, ‘what’s mine is his.’ “We’re Colton’s family, so now we’re Eli’s family. (The adoption process) did get our minds off the sadness.”
As the Rusk family readied their caravan for the trip home, Kathy Rusk’s last words to a well-wisher seemed appropriate.
“This helps,” she said, glancing toward Eli. “He’ll be a part of us.”