By NATHAN GREGORY
Despite enduring one of the most brutal of tragedies a parent can know, Rachel Lee is telling the story of her son and his best friend in an effort to make something positive come from her and her family’s pain.
Rachel Lee, mother of the late Cpl. Dustin Jerome Lee, who sustained fatal injuries from a rocket-propelled grenade while serving in Iraq as a member of the Marine Corps in March 2007, is working on establishing a national military working dog monument established in Washington, D.C. and having military working dogs reclassified as veterans after they retire so they can receive care and be recognized for their efforts. Dustin Lee was chosen at the top of his class as a certified K-9 handler, and the dog that was by his side when he was wounded, Lex, was also injured. Nine months after Lee was killed, Lex was adopted by Lee’s mother and family.
Lex is currently undergoing constant hydration therapy at the Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine’s animal health center for shrapnel he still has in his rear extremities.
At the annual Oktibbeha County Humane Society meeting Thursday at First United Methodist Church, Rachel Lee said her son’s initial inspiration to serve his country came during a ninth grade trip in which his high school choir went to New York to sing at Carnegie Hall.
“That’s where he became up close and personal with what freedom was all about. One particular monument stood out to him as he was walking around. It was the Vietnam War monument, and he found his great uncle’s name on there,” she said. “Whenever he came to me he held that slip of paper and he was talking, I could tell his big gorgeous blue eyes were starting to glass over. But then he shook it off ... so I knew in his heart what was going on.”
During his senior year in high school, Dustin announced his intention to join the Marines. Rachel Lee said she was stunned when he told her of his plans.
“Needless to say, I was speechless,” she said. “I was scared just like any mother would be. Dustin was the type that if he was going to do something it was going to be over and beyond what was better. He never would settle for anything less.”
Rachel Lee said as her son’s time in the service progressed he decided he wanted to be a military policemen. When attaining that responsibility, he opted to be a K-9 handler.
“When he made that choice he knew there was a risk of being sent to Iraq,” Lee said.
The risk became reality in September 2006, when he flew there and continued his service. On March 21, 2007, Rachel Lee received the announcement that her son had lost his life.
“I got a phone call from my family saying I needed to get home. That was the worst day in my life,” she said. “Having Marine officers pull in your driveway is a sight you never want to see. I knew the strength was going to have to come from somewhere else. There was no way I could handle this, so I gave it up to my higher power.”
When the sergeants told her what happened and asked her if she had any questions, she asked “How is Lex?”
“Why would I think of a dog after hearing of the death of my son? That dog was my son’s best friend, his confidant, his partner, his life. They went nowhere without each other,” she said. “Later, I heard that Lex, with his injuries, pulled off of Dustin to protect him as their blood then connected, so as I stand here I believe Dustin’s blood is running through Lex’s veins.”
Lee said she is continuing her son’s service with the 119 Mission named after her son’s and family members numbers when they participated in Motocross races. She said that mission is to raise awareness about the sacrifices military men make and to work with legislature to reclassify military working dogs as K-9 veterans and not military equipment.
“In February 2008, Lex received an honorary purple heart for his service and dedication, and that’s another reason we want the government to change. These dogs have saved countless lives. They need to be recognized,” she said. “We celebrate Memorial Day, we celebrate Independence Day and we celebrate Veteran’s Day, but every day should be celebrated as a day of remembrance. Each day (we need to) remember all our heroes and remember the blood they sacrificed for the freedoms we share.”
Lex is now a certified therapy dog with Paws 4 Hearts, an organization based in San Antonio, Texas. Lee has set up a Facebook account where people can donate to Lex’s therapy, “Angels for Lex.”
“Lex receives healing but in turn provides healing,” Lee said. “What he is receiving from (the MSU Veterinary College), we see progress each time. He’s lost over 20 pounds since before Christmas, so we’re continuing to build his muscles to get him back going again.”
Lee said Lex continues to visit veterans’ homes, churches, hospitals and schools to ensure awareness of military dogs’ duty and dedication and to pursue promotion for the monument and reclassification.
“Dustin thought life was about helping others; he always remained committed to doing just that,” she said. “Commitment was shown through his life with family and through his military career, his fellow soldiers, his military working dogs, through his marksmanship abilities. This acknowledges that Dustin’s 119 Mission will continue,” she said.