On this day in 2007, the U.S. Marine Corps grants a bomb-sniffing German Shepherd early retirement. Lex’s release marked the first time that a dog would be released for adoption while that dog was still capable of working.
Long gone were the days of Vietnam, when thousands of dogs were tragically euthanized or abandoned at the end of the war. Obviously, such outcomes had bothered many—especially the dogs’ handlers.
Many felt that change was needed, and it finally came. In 2000, Congress passed legislation allowing retired military dogs to be adopted. The Secretary of Defense was tasked with providing an annual report on what happened to these dogs. Were they transferred to law enforcement? Adopted? Euthanized?
If euthanized, an explanation was required.
The changed rules proved important to the family of Corporal Dustin Lee, who’d joined the Marines fresh from his high school graduation in 2004. “He always wanted to help other people,” his father Jerome explained. “He loved his country and was proud to be a Marine.”
Dustin trained in the K-9 program at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. He graduated at the top of his class and was partnered with Lex, an explosives dog, before he left for Iraq.
By all accounts, the two were a formidable team. Staff Sgt. Dana Brown would later say that Dustin and Lex were among the best under her supervision. She entrusted them with a tough assignment, embedding them with a Marine reconnaissance unit.
Unfortunately, Dustin and Lex were sitting outside a forward operating base near Falluja on March 21, 2007, when a mortar attack hit. Dustin’s wounds were mortal.
“Lex, from my understanding, was kind of laying on [Dustin] or near him, protecting him,” Brown described. “He just didn’t want to leave him. He knew he belonged there and something was wrong. Even though he was hurting, he knew he was supposed to stay by his handler.”
Dustin’s body was returned to his family to be buried. Lex spent 12 weeks being treated for shrapnel wounds before being declared fit for duty again. Dustin’s family, however, appealed to the Marines: Could they adopt Lex?
“This thing went from colonels to generals all the way up to the commandant of the Marine Corps, and it almost went to the secretary of defense,” Jerome described. They even got help from a congressman who thought the adoption “the right thing to do” because “[t]here’s a special bond between a man and his animal.”
On December 13, 2007, the Marines approved the Lee’s request. A week later, the Lee family took the German Shepherd home. “We can’t get Dustin back, but we have Lex,” his mother concluded. The family especially hoped that Lex’s presence would help Dustin’s little brother and sister.
Today, the law specifies “extraordinary circumstances” that allow military families to adopt military working dogs early. Among these are those in which “the handler of a military working dog is killed in action, dies of wounds received in action, or is medically retired as a result of injuries received in action.”
And, of course, retiring dogs can still be adopted: The vast majority are adopted by their former handlers.
Adoption isn’t always easy work, as some dogs have PTSD or other injuries, yet the waiting list to adopt a former military working dog is still long.
Perhaps this is unsurprising? Dogs do important work for our country: sniffing out bombs, locating injured soldiers, and befriending our troops just when they need it most. Helping them to live out their retirement years, just being regular dogs, is a task that many patriotic Americans are all too willing to undertake.
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Family adopts Marine’s canine (Boston Globe; Dec. 22, 2007) (page 6)
Family adopts slain Marine's canine partner (Montgomery Advertiser; Dec. 22, 2007) (page 10)
In Memory of Cpl. Dustin J. Lee: April 7, 1986--March 21, 2007 (Clarke County Tribune; May 10, 2007) (page 4)
Janet Andrews, Clarke County Soldier Killed in Iraq (Clarke County Tribune; Mar. 29, 2007) (page 1)
Larisa Epatko, Military Working Dogs: What Happens After They Serve? (PBS; May 28, 2012)
Nicklaus Lovelady, Iraq Mortar Attack Kills Quitman Marine (Clarion-Ledger; Mar. 23, 2007) (page 1)
Robby’s Law (United States War Dogs Heritage Museum)
Rusty Dornin, Iraq war dog loses his handler but gains a family (CNN; Dec. 20, 2007)
Soldier with Winston County Ties Dies in Iraq (Winston County Journal; Mar. 28, 2007) (page 1)
Virginia C. Thomas, Military Working Dogs: Tracking Their Journey from Equipment to K-9 Heroes (Michigan Law Journal; May 2021)