National Geographic News
A photo of Kathy and Darrell Rusk visiting their son's gravesite.

Eli, a black Lab, comforts Kathy Rusk at the Texas gravesite of her son, Marine Lance Cpl. Colton Rusk, killed in Afghanistan in 2010.

PHOTOGRAPH BY ADAM FERGUSON, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Christy Ullrich Barcus

National Geographic

Published May 23, 2014

On each of the past three Memorial Days someone has left a can of dog food and a bottle of beer at Lance Cpl. Colton Rusk's gravesite in Orange Grove, Texas. A device for sweeping IEDs, a lucky baseball, and military coins also lie near his headstone. A black ceramic dog stands perpetual guard, and a pole installed by Colton's father, Darrell, flies the American flag.

Kathy Rusk, accompanied by her black Labrador retriever, Eli, comes to her son's grave at least three times a week. Three benches surround the grave, one for her, one for his father, and one for his two brothers to share. Kathy's bench bears the inscription "Smile for Me, My Texas Angel," Colton's favorite song.

On his 20th birthday, September 23, 2010, Colton was deployed as a Marine dog handler to Afghanistan, where he and his dog walked at the head of patrols, identifying improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Less than three months later, during a particularly violent period in Sangin, he was killed by enemy gunfire while on patrol.

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Kathy says that when she sits on the bench, she thinks about Colton and how she took care of him as he grew up. She feels a constant pull to be with him. "The need to do for your child never stops."

Eli too had felt a need to protect Colton. The Lab was the first to run to the young marine's side when he was shot.

A photo of Colton with his dog Eli.
Eli bonds with Colton Rusk at the American K9 Interdiction training facility in South Carolina.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF THE RUSK FAMILY

Basic Training

Colton and Eli first met at the American K9 Interdiction training facility in South Carolina, where the energetic black Labrador retriever was paired with the budding dog handler.

At the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. had a force of roughly 2,500 military working dogs. The dogs are usually trained to detect IEDs at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, the military's primary canine facility.

From the beginning of their months in training, Colton felt a strong connection with Eli. As a handler, he was responsible for every facet of the dog's military life—feeding, grooming, health care. The two became so close that Colton used a photo of himself with Eli as his Facebook profile picture, with the caption "What's mine is also his."

A photo of Colton Rusk showing off the tattoo he got with the word
Against his mother’s wishes, Colton insisted on getting a tattoo before being deployed to Afghanistan.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF THE RUSK FAMILY

Colton gained a reputation for breaking the rules when it came to his dog. He once had words with another marine about Eli eating in the mess hall. He said that Eli deserved to eat where he ate and sleep where he slept. From then on he would bring his food back to his tent to share with Eli.

The night before he was killed, Colton phoned his parents. It was just the second time they'd been able to talk while he was in country. He told them the guys felt safer when he and Eli were with them on patrol. Before he hung up, he mentioned that he'd finally had a chance to mail them a letter. "Look for it," he said.

The next day Kathy had just arrived at work when she got a call from someone with the military. A man told her that he needed her to come home. She ran to her car, calling Darrell on the way. "I remember the dark blue van parked at my gate," she says. "I remember the men having to do their jobs and recite the words that every mom and dad dread, even though I really don't remember what the words were. I started screaming, 'I just talked to him, he said he was fine, he said he was going to call me today.'"

A photo of the Rusk family posing with their dogs.
The 16-year-old Colton (at left) poses for the Rusk family Christmas card with his brothers and the family dogs.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF THE RUSK FAMILY

Later she was told that Colton had been on a patrol with a few Humvees when one of the trucks ran over an IED. Only the tire was damaged, and Colton and Eli got out to make sure everyone was OK and see if there were any more IEDs. The area was secured, but as Colton walked back to the Humvees, he was shot by a sniper. Eli jumped on top of him, trying to protect him. The other marines had to pull Eli away and put him in the truck while the medics tried to save Colton. They got him onto a medevac helicopter, but he died of internal bleeding.

In the days that followed, the family hung on to the promise of Colton's letter. "I kept thinking, His last letter is still coming," says Kathy. On December 17, the day before Colton was to be buried, the letter finally arrived.

"Hey Mommy how's life in the real world? It's getting cold here but Eli keeps me pretty warm at night." He'd written "Merry Christmas" in case the letter took a while, adding that he'd received the guardian-angel pin his mother had sent him—he wore it on his flak jacket. At the top of the letter was a smudge. Next to it Colton had written, "Eli sends his kisses."

A photo of Darrell Rusk with Eli, who was Rusk's son's dog in Afghanistan.
Wearing Colton’s dog tags around his neck, Darrell Rusk, Colton's father, sits on the porch with Eli outside their Texas home.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ADAM FERGUSON, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

What's Mine Is Also Yours

Shortly after Colton's death, one of the dog trainers who'd worked with him asked the Rusks if they wanted to adopt Eli. It was an unusual proposition. Preference for adopted military dogs is given to former handlers, federal agencies, and local law enforcement, and the process can take up to 18 months.

The Rusks already had two dogs on their ranch, but adding Eli—Colton's dog, the dog that had tried to protect their son—seemed right. Before trying to adopt Eli, the Rusks wanted to be sure they weren't taking him away from any marines who needed him. But the military soon deemed Eli unworkable.

News of their desire to adopt Eli spread, and Governor Rick Perry weighed in on their behalf. Two months later the Rusks finalized the adoption at Lackland.

Kathy worried that Eli might not want anything to do with them. But as soon as he entered the room at Lackland where they met for the first time, her fears dissipated. "Eli just came into our arms. He was here for us. Colton had sent him," she says. "I thought, Everything's going to be OK, we're going to be together, and we're going to take care of each other."

She adds, "Eli will never replace the love we have for Colton. We just feel Colton's love having Eli."

A photo of Kathy and Darrell Rusk at their son's gravesite. Their son was a Marine killed in Afghanistan.
On weekends Kathy and Darrell Rusk spend time together at their son’s gravesite.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ADAM FERGUSON, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Trainers at Lackland showed the family some commands and how to keep the dog working. But Kathy told them that Eli was now retired and he was going to be just a dog. She and Darrell use only a couple of commands from Eli's training at Lackland, including heel, sit, and go. Sometimes when they tell Colton's story to children at local schools or to veteran's groups, they bring out the Kong, a rubber toy used in Eli's military training to reward him. "When he sees that Kong, he is a different dog," Kathy says. "He knows it is time to work."

The day the family brought Eli home to their 20-acre ranch outside Corpus Christi, Eli ran immediately to Colton's room and jumped up on his bed. "I knew he could sense Colton," Kathy says. Colton's 15-year-old brother, Brady, has slept with Eli every night since.

Kathy says she sometimes feels guilty that she has Eli, knowing that other parents who've lost a child may not have such a close reminder. "I just try to take the best care of him and pray that God grants us many more years with him," she says. When Eli dies, the family plans to cremate him and place his ashes with Colton.

"When you lose a child, that feeling doesn't stop," Kathy says. Yet on the days when it's hard to get out of bed, Eli is still there, waiting to go for a walk or wanting to play fetch. "We keep on going because we know that is what Colton would have wanted."

53 comments
Parameswara Emani
Parameswara Emani

With tears in my eyes and agony in my heart I offer my condolences to the parents of Colton for the irreparable loss of their beloved young son. Soldiers are meant to guard the liberty of some others at the cost of their lives.A loss of a family member heals not by forgetting but by remembering. The dog Eli reminds Colton at every moment. I pray the Almighty to grant willpower to the parents,other family members and friends to withstand the loss of an young man.

Denise Huxham
Denise Huxham

But how would one ever understand that the US military just abandoned the working dogs when they left Vietnam? I find that heartbreaking!

ali sinclair
ali sinclair

very sad story glad the dog is safe & well loved they really are mans best friend they are so much snarter than given credit for i suffer from emphyseia know & even though my chocolate lab can run like a puppy when he"s on the lead with me he takes his lead from whatever pace im upto that day even though he would probably prefer to be 500 yards up the road galloping along 

A Cheatham
A Cheatham

Eli provides politicians and bureaucrats with very simple and easy to understand examples of "service", "courage" and "integrity".

Be there no clearer demonstration of what Americans are able to feel and do as a result of these fundamental traits evident in that dog. At there end day those in office ought to hope for a fraction of that pure ability.

Marc Myers
Marc Myers

In my experience, dogs invariably recognize blood relatives of their owners.  I've always assumed that they smell the same.  I'm not at all surprised that Eli's first move on entering the house was to install himself on Cotton's bed.  Living with Cotton's family is as much a comfort to Eli as he is to them

Aaron Rock
Aaron Rock

Semper Fidelis brother. Eli will join you one day at the gates, and you shall both guard them eternally.

Ray M.
Ray M.

Semper Fi, brother. God bless dogs and Marines.

Mary Celaya
Mary Celaya

This is such a touching story. My heart goes out to the Rusk family.

El ValaWë
El ValaWë

Moving on does not mean forgetting, does not mean disrespecting. I lost my father five years ago, and the best thing I can do is use my grief, use my memories to propel myself towards a rich, happy, positive and fulfilling life. I like to think that if I'm sad, he is sad, because I'm not using my time here to promote happiness, to be happy, to enjoy the wonderful things in life. We'll all be reunited someday, in any way you believe so. There's no right and wrong, but there is the certainty that we are connected.

May my words help you to realize that life is no more that a waiting period, and the most we get out of it, the happier we make those who await us on the next chapter.

G. Terrell
G. Terrell

Kathy, I feel for you. But going to the grave three times a week won't let you get beyond your grief. You must move forward. How about your other son? And your husband? Speaking from experience, we must move forward. Your son did wonderful things and was appreciated. And you've got that great intuitive dog. It's hard, I know. My condolences.

lloyd ryan
lloyd ryan

Semper Fi,  Lord I wish I didn't have to cry over the deaths in combat of my fellow Marines an all other services.  My condolences to his family an Eli.

zu julia
zu julia

Tears streaming down while reading such a moving story.  Best, best , best  wishes to all of you and Eli

Catherine Tucker
Catherine Tucker

It is amazing , the bond between a soldier and their service dog. My thoughts and prayers go out to the rusk family.

Margi Battistella
Margi Battistella

We should learn from animals, we should learn what the sense of life is like....

Solon Lechonitis
Solon Lechonitis

Very sad Story,It Shows the true love also of the Dogs.RIP.Cotton.

Kevin Mort
Kevin Mort

Sorry found this offensive obviously, Rest in peace soldier and guide the rest to safety.

Kevin Mort
Kevin Mort

F*** that other soldier, I have nothing but respect for our soldiers regardless of the field they serve, army, navy, and so on, but f*** that soldier that said anything about his dog. That dog could save your a** one day. He is also out there working at protecting all of you not just him and deserves to eat with the rest of the soldiers CAUSE the dog is a soldier. ALL soldiers deserve respect and what respect is it to require this soldier to eat in another tent.

Smita Dikshit
Smita Dikshit

So beautiful and yet so sad. My deepest condolences for the loss the Rusk's underwent. Colton was simply amazing and I believe as an angel he is still watching over them and has sent Eli just to let them know how strong his love is.

Avril Young
Avril Young

Oh so sorry for your loss...my heart goes out to you and your family..and yes I agree Eli loved your Colton for a reason...could not stop cying while reading this...Bless you and your family..

Rick Dunlap
Rick Dunlap

good story, poor kid grew up just a few miles from where I grew up.  Dogs in general are just outstanding animals, but Labs are a cut above, so many intangibles, I will never forget mine.  Sorry for your loss, looked like a great boy, his love of dogs, shows his spirit and character.  


Funny how dogs know good people and the alternative, Eli loved your Colton for a reason.

Marlon Sampang
Marlon Sampang

I'm sorry for your loss; may the Lord bless you and keep you.

R. Hall
R. Hall

I'll be honest this made me cry my eyes out. Animals are amazing and we all take for granted the love they have for us. While I was reading this there was one animal I was thinking of, my families first Brittany Spaniel...He was special. Never forget that our pets have feelings too, that all they want is to please you and have you happy. I have a cat and though there are many people out there that think cats just hide away and are mean, I have a special bond with my cat. There are few people besides me whom he likes and fewer still have heard him purr. He holds grudges against me when I leave for a few days but always comes back for attention. Always be kind to your animals, its amazing to find what they give back in your time of need.

Suzanne Barnes
Suzanne Barnes

This brought tears to my eyes, both of sorrow and gratitude.  Thank you for your service, Lance Corporal Colton Rusk; thank you for your service, Eli.  And thank you to the Rusk family for their strength and open hearts; I wish there were more people around like them.  Peace to you all, and may you meet again in happier times.

Liane Brewer
Liane Brewer

this is such a touching and beautiful story. It certainly goes straight to the heart..Colton was a fine young man who died too young and I can imagine what

the family must be feeling. I am sure the Eli (a brave and wonderful dog) will be

part of a loving and caring family.

Phillip Lake
Phillip Lake

I am a Nam Vet and 23 years of military. I love my God, my family and my country. But, I am tired - so tired of seeing our children, moms, dads, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins coming back home in that metal coffin or on the air evac plane with the loss of limbs and with the memories of the hell that is produced by war. God - please - make it stop. Bring our families home - please. Amen

reva madison
reva madison

The type of story that is sad, but also uplifting.  I learned, at age 6, the love a dog can give, when my great grandfather died.  His dog, came to live at our house, but disappeared that first night.  The next day, a neighbor came by and said that spot was up on cemetary hill, lying on great-grandpas grave. Somehow he had tracked the casket and great grandpa there.  He came back, and stayed with me until his end.  To the family - the spirit lives on.  Love and be loved.


E  Woods
E Woods

What a wonderful story.  My love and prayers go out to the family for their sacrifice. May Elli live a long and wonderful life, reminding them of their son, and bringing some joy.

Crystal Blakeney
Crystal Blakeney

Love how they honored my nephew.  The loss is hole that will never be filled, but having Eli does help our family.  Always proud aunt of LCpl Colton W Rusk

John Hatch
John Hatch

Beautiful story. I wish the best for Colton's family and Eli. I am truly sorry for their loss 

Joy Saldanha
Joy Saldanha

What a wonderful story. Be happy Eli, with yours and Colton's family. 

P Anderson
P Anderson

@lloyd ryan As you are a Marine, I thank you for YOUR service.  And to every single person working and giving all they have for our country, I thank you.  It's just not enough, I wish I could do more.

P Anderson
P Anderson

@Kevin Mort Kevin...I'm sorry you found this offensive.  To many it is a story of a young man giving all to and for his country....and that his 'partner' was able to come home to share the rest of his life with Colton's family.  It is a story of sacrifice and love.  Perhaps you missed the point?  Bless Eli, his work is not done.

P Anderson
P Anderson

@Phillip Lake We are of the same era and have seen too much.  I pray they all come home safe, with their dogs (if applicable) beside them to enjoy the rest of their lives together.  We've just seen too much.

Larry Hawley
Larry Hawley

@Phillip Lake I too am a nam Vet,12 years military and feel very much as you do. God bless all our service men and women ! Thank you for your service Phillip.

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