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.