After 20-year-old Private Rusk was killed Dec. 5 in Helmand province, Afghanistan, by Taliban sniper fire, Marines officials told Darrell and Kathy Rusk, his parents, that Eli, his infantry explosives detector dog, crawled on top of their son to protect him after he was shot.
This photo of Colton and Eli is now in a locket around his mother’s neck. “In his last letter we got the day before we buried him, at the very top was a little smudge that said ‘Eli’s kisses,'” said Mrs. Rusk.
Private Rusk joined the Marines after he graduated from Orange Grove High School, and committed himself to the Marines the same week that his best friend, Lance Cpl. Justin Rokohl, lost both legs in southern Afghanistan. Private Rusk deployed to Afghanistan on his 20th birthday, with Eli, as part of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
“He wanted to be a Marine since he was 10 years old,” his mother said. “We talked to him about maybe going to college first, but he said he had to fight for his country first.” The dog Private Rusk liked to call “My boy, Eli,” earned a reputation for wanting to be wherever his handler was. Eli didn’t want to sleep on the ground; he slept in Private Rusk’s sleeping bag. They even ate together outside after Private Rusk found out that Eli wasn’t allowed to eat in the chow hall.
“Whatever is mine is his,” Marine Corps Pfc. Colton W. Rusk wrote about Eli in the final days of their deployment in Afghanistan. On Feb. 3, Private Rusk’s family helped prove his words true when they adopted the black Labrador retriever in a retirement and adoption ceremony at the military working dog school at Lackland AFB in San Antonio. The Rusks drove to Lackland Air Force Base from their home in Orange Grove, Texas, along with their sons, 22-year-old Cody and 12-year-old Brady; Private Rusk’s aunt, Yvonne Rusk; and Jan Rusk and Katy and Wayne O’Neal, Private Rusk’s grandparents.
“It gets our mind off the sadness of losing Colton,” Mrs. Rusk said, “just knowing we’re going to have a little piece of Colton in Eli. I just wished he could talk and tell us some stories. Just to know we’re going to be able to share the love we have for our son with something that he loved dearly.”
The family met Eli once when they visited Private Rusk at Camp Pendleton the week he deployed. After the retirement and adoption ceremony, the Rusks took Eli to their home on more than 20 acres of land, which he will share with the family, as well as their horses and three German shepherds.
Jan Rusk, Private Rusk’s grandmother, said this was another way to honor his memories, but it also will help the family as they continue to cope with their loss.
“Eli was a part of Colton, and now they have a little part of Colton back,” she said.
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