Wounded Sergeant Fights for a 'Best Friend'

By law, the Air Force can't allow Tech. Sgt. Jamie Dana to adopt Rex, her combat dog.
By law, the Air Force can't allow Tech. Sgt. Jamie Dana to adopt Rex, her combat dog. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 20, 2005

They had trained together for three years in the military and were deployed overseas side by side. In June, they arrived in Iraq, where they worked as a team scouring houses and villages for hidden explosives. Then, one afternoon, riding back from a mission, a roadside bomb went off under their Humvee.

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jamie Dana was critically injured -- bleeding internally, her lungs collapsed, her spine fractured, her pelvis broken. In her last moment of consciousness, she asked in desperation about her comrade. "Where's Rex?" she pleaded. When no one answered, she grabbed a medic's arm. "Where's my dog? Is he dead?"

The medic told her that he was. "I felt like my heart broke," she recalled. "It's the last thing I remember."

Weeks passed before Dana would understand that the medic was mistaken and that Rex was alive. The German shepherd was burned slightly on his nose while Dana teetered at life's edge, doctors unable to assure her family that she would survive.

Not long after she started to rally from her injuries, Dana asked Air Force leaders if she could adopt Rex. The answer was no; it was against the rules, and Rex was still valuable to the military. Now, the Air Force has changed its view -- but federal law stands in the way.

Under Title 10, U.S. Code 2583, the Air Force says it cannot allow the wounded airman to take her combat dog home until the animal is too old to be useful. Rex, 80 pounds and brown and black with gold markings, is just 5 years old, not nearly the retirement age of 10 to 14.

It will take an act of Congress to pave the way for Rex to stay with Dana, 26. For the time being, he is with her on leave and will return with her this week to Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, where Dana is stationed. Walking with a cane because of nerve damage in her legs and feet, Dana expects to take a desk job while military medical boards consider whether she should retire.

"He's my best friend," she said. "I thought he was dead, and I was almost dead, and that made the feeling to be with him a lot stronger."

In Congress, several lawmakers have taken up her cause, including Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), who is working to attach to a Defense appropriations bill a provision that would allow Rex's adoption. The measure is expected to emerge from a conference committee by the middle of next month and must face votes in both houses.

"This young lady came as close to death as you can come and still be alive," said Rep. John E. Peterson (R-Pa.), who lobbied on her behalf. "She was extremely seriously wounded . . . and I think a person who came that close to death deserves to have the dog who went through it with them. . . . I think that's the least we can do for her."

Air Force officials said support for granting Dana's request has grown in recent weeks. "You add things up, and this is the right thing to do," said Brig. Gen. Robert Holmes, Air Force director of security forces and force protection.

Dana said the Air Force had turned her down twice. Adopting Rex, officials said in an Oct. 21 letter to Peterson, would not be "a legal or advisable use of Air Force assets, in spite of the sentimental value and potential healing effects it might produce."

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