Pfc. Colton Rusk with bomb sniffing dog Eli.

Our heart goes out to Pfc. Colton Rusk and his family. They are doing a great thing by taking in Eli.

— Kenn

By MARK COLLETTE For Scripps Howard News Service

ORANGE GROVE, Texas – When Pfc. Colton Rusk was shot by Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, his war dog, Eli, crawled atop the Marine to protect him.

The young Marine died from that Dec. 5 attack, but the black Labrador is soon to have a new home with the family of his fallen comrade.

Later this week, Rusk’s mother, Kathy Rusk, and other relatives will attend an unofficial ceremony at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio where Eli will be entrusted to their care.

Rusk, 20, was a machine-gunner and Eli’s handler. Eli, trained to identify explosives, was part of the Military Working Dog program based at Lackland. Dogs trained to detect improvised bombs have discovered hundreds of thousands of pounds of explosives and weapons in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rusk’s mother, Kathy Rusk, said the family isn’t ready to talk about Eli’s homecoming and wants to keep the attention and distractions to a minimum because the family isn’t sure how the dog will react to his new environment.

But family members have said that because of Rusk’s love and pride in Eli, his parents consider the dog a member of the family.

Eli even shared Rusk’s cot when sleeping, said Yvonne Rusk, Colton’s aunt.

“They do get attached,” said Lt. Josh Diddams, a Marine Corps public affairs officer. “A lot of times these dogs and handlers will be best friends during their deployment. It can be hard for the Marines because they may only do one tour as a dog handler.”

Military working dogs aren’t always discharged from service soon after the death of a handler, said Gerry Proctor, public affairs officer for the Air Force 37th Training Wing at Lackland. Dogs may be transferred to train with other handlers or units as long as they are fit for service.

In Eli’s case, the commander of Rusk’s unit, the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment, recommended the dog for retirement and adoption at the family’s request, Proctor said.

Diddams said it’s difficult to quantify how many lives the dogs have saved because soldiers often simply avoid areas where the dogs alert.

“Marines love them,” he said. “They’re amazing at what they do.”