When Pfc. Colton Rusk was shot by Taliban fighters in Afghanistan last December, his loyal explosives-sniffing dog, Eli, rushed to his side and crawled on top of him to protect him, according to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Eli even snapped at other Marines who rushed over to help Rusk.
Tragically, Rusk, 20, didn’t make it. Eli could have been sent off to a new handler. After all, he’s only 4 years old, was uninjured, and has thousands of dollars worth of training invested in him. The day Rusk died, Eli had already sniffed out two explosives. But a plea from Rusk’s family in Texas changed Eli’s future.
The commander of Rusk’s unit knew of Rusk’s very special bond with Eli. Sniffer dogs are supposed to sleep in kennels. But Rusk often broke the rules and let him sleep with him on his cot, according to the Huffington Post. Sometimes the dog took up the entire sleeping bag, but Rusk didn’t mind.. Rusk had grown up with dogs on his family’s 100-acre ranch in South Texas, and Eli was almost like a second skin to him. Rusk ate ready-to-eat meals, therefore so did Eli.
“Whatever is mine is his,” Rusk wrote on his Facebook page.
Little did he know that one day, Rusk’s family would be Eli’s.
Based on their strong bond, and the family’s pleas (on their own and through influential politicians), the commander of Rusk’s unit recommended Eli for retirement and adoption by Rusk’s parents and brothers. It’s only the second adoption to the family of a military dog handler killed in combat, reports the Caller.
On Thursday the family traveled to Lackland Air Force Base to meet Rusk’s best friend for the first time. It was as if they’d known each other for years. Maybe Eli could sniff Rusk’s genetics in his family. The sweet scene, according to the Caller:
Eli wagged his tail furiously when he was brought into a small room inside the 37th Training Wing to meet his new owners. A Marine staff sergeant tried to get the dog to sit obediently while he read a letter of thanks to the family, but he relented after Eli kept lunging forward to sniff Rusk’s mother, Kathy.
When the leash was finally handed to Darrell Rusk, his wife and two sons each crouched down to hug and pet Eli, who lifted his front right paw to invite their hands toward his belly. All were crying…
Rusk’s younger brother, Brady Rusk, 12, grabbed the leash and didn’t let go. He held so hard his knuckles turned white as tears streamed down his face.
“Every time he called home, it was always about Eli,” Kathy Rusk said of her son. “It gave me some comfort knowing that Colton wasn’t alone over there…We just feel like he was Colton’s family, so now he’s our family.”
Endings to sad stories don’t get much better than this. May they have many happy, healing years together.