Fallen soldier’s family brings dog they named Hero home from Iraq

November 10, 2011

This was as close as Hero the dog had been to her old buddy Justin since they were photographed together in 2007. In that picture, they were snout-to-chest, a 23-year-old soldier cuddling a weeks-old stray puppy in Samarra, Iraq. But Wednesday, Hero could get no nearer than six feet, a grown dog snuffling above a grave at Arlington National Cemetery.

“Whaddaya think, girl, you guys glad to be back together?” asked Mitchel Rollins, patting Hero’s back, raising a little cloud of fur in the sun slanting across his son’s final resting place. “Are you still shedding? You gonna leave some hairs on Justin? I think he would like that.”

Whatever this unlikely reunion between a dog-loving soldier and the last dog he loved meant to Justin, it certainly meant everything to his family, which is why they moved military mountains to make it happen. His mother, Rhonda Rollins, knelt on the grass, one hand on Hero, the other tracing the black letters on white marble: Justin Allan Rollins.

“You just don’t expect to see the name you pick out for your baby on a headstone,” she said, even as her baby’s dog demanded her attention, deflecting her grief, doing its job.

Dog and soldier took very different paths to Arlington. On March 5, 2007, one day after he befriended the puppy, Army Spec. Rollins was killed by a massive roadside bomb. Two weeks later, he was here in Section 60.

Hero’s trip was longer and stranger. It started when an Iraqi soldier waved over Rollins and his unit to see something interesting outside a police station. It was a litter of dusty blond puppies, sleeping in an old upturned outhouse.

A group of the men jumped at the chance to fraternize with some local critters. Rollins in particular was a self-professed animal nut, with a beloved pit bull sleeping on his bed in New Hampshire and a history of rescuing strays. When his unit was sent to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, he got dozens of abandoned dogs into shelters.

The guys passed around the Iraqi pups, snapped a bunch of pictures. Later that night, Rollins called his girlfriend back home and told her to expect some very cute photos from him the next day. That e-mail never arrived.

“We never heard from Justin again,” Rhonda says.

When they did see the pictures, sent by one of his buddies, they were entranced: Justin nose to nose with a brown-eared pup; Justin cradling the one with a patch over its eye. His joy was palpable.

“It was so wonderful to see how happy he was,” Rhonda says. “Those were his last happy moments.”

When his flag-draped transfer case arrived at an airfield in New Hampshire, an Army general asked the family members if there was anything he could do for them.

As a matter of fact, there was.

“I want one of those puppies,” Rhonda answered immediately.

The officer nodded and said they would be glad to get her any kind of dog she liked. No, Rhonda said, she wanted one of those dogs. From the pictures. Justin’s dogs. She already had a box full of his personal effects, but she knew his dog could provide something his dog tags couldn’t — an armful of her son’s loving warmth.

“I felt that if I could hold one of the puppies that he had held, it would bring bring a little bit of him back to me,” she said.

Carey Neesley understands that. The social worker in Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich., went to herculean lengths to get her brother’s two pet dogs out of Iraq after he died in December 2008. He had saved the stray Labrador and her pup from Baghdad’s mean streets, where dogs are unloved and short-lived.

It took a volunteer to fly to Iraq, a private airliner to donate plane space and a private security unit willing to collect Mama and Boris from Peter Neesley’s unit mates, who were secretly caring for them.

“For us, having them here is a reminder of Peter and what he lived for and who he was,” Carey Neesley says.

The Army didn’t exactly help, she said, but letters from Sen. Carl M. Levin, a Michigan Democrat, and then-Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) persuaded officials to at least “turn the other way.”

An Army spokesman said it was flatly against military policy to take in pets in these war zones and to transport them home. But a military official with experience in the region said officers recognize the power of animal companionship, for warriors and their survivors.

“Soldiering is a human business,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the animal rescues in question are prohibited. “Things like this happen, and though on their face they may violate policy, exceptions are made.”

It took the Rollinses months to navigate their way to one of those “exceptions.” Justin’s girlfriend, Brittney Murray, took the lead. After a series of “No ways” from the Army, she started with local newspapers and then congressional offices. Finally, then-Rep. Paul W. Hodes (D-N.H.) offered to help. Staff members worked the phones for months, getting Hodes on the horn to Baghdad several times.

“It was a big operation; we took it very seriously,” says Hodes, who left office in 2010 after running unsuccessfully for the Senate. “I think everyone understood what this meant to the family.”

They found veterinarians in Iraq who were willing to give the dog shots and provide a travel certificate. The DHL delivery company offered to fly it to New Hampshire. Finally, the Army agreed to ask for volunteers to go get one of the dogs, which were still living by the police station.

“We looked at the photos and looked at the marking until we were sure we got the right one,” said Jason Wheeler, who was one of Rollins’s best friends in the 82nd Airborne. “We had her for about a month, cleaned her up, built a plywood hut for her. My aunt sent me a collar and a bunch of dog toys.”

Hero, as she came to be named, arrived in New Hampshire in May 2007. After the local DHL driver ran by his house and had his kids give her a bath, she met the Rollinses in Hodes’s district office. She immediately christened his office rug.

“I have been hoping she wouldn’t do that on anybody’s grave at Arlington,” Rhonda said with a laugh.

She and her husband, often with Murray, have visited Justin’s grave every year around his Nov. 10 birthday. But traveling with Hero had always been too expensive and complicated.

But this dog tale has been spreading. Animal Planet came to film Hero for a series of true-life stories about animals that have helped people through difficult times. (The series will begin airing Monday night.) When the Rollinses told them they were skipping this year’s trip to Arlington for financial reasons, the network offered to fly them and Murray, and invited them to bring Hero.

“It really has come full circle,” said Rhonda, sitting on her son’s cool, grassy place, caressing the soft fur and warm heartbeat of her son’s last animal pal. It’s a spectacular autumn evening, the long gravestone shadows falling across the improbable family gathering. “I feel like we’re all together here.”

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Steve Hendrix came to The Post more than ten years ago from the world of magazine freelancing and has written for just about every page of the paper: Travel, Style, the Magazine, Book World, Foreign, National and, most recently, the Metro section’s Enterprise Team.
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