New MWD monument meaningful to fallen handler's family
By Mike Joseph , JBSA-Lackland Public Affairs
/ Published November 13, 2013
JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas -- The mother of a fallen Marine dog handler knows first hand about the bond between a handler and their battlefield teammate.
Part of a large crowd gathered at the new national monument dedicated to U.S. Military Working Dog teams Oct. 28, here, Kathy Rusk struggled with her emotions following its unveiling.
"This means a lot," she said as tears began to flow. "It's very emotional."
The Rusk family understands the connection between handler and dog. Eli, a black Labrador retriever, was the best friend, constant companion, bunkmate and chow pal of their son, Marine Lance Cpl. Colton Rusk.
The specially-trained Lab had located improvised explosive devices on Dec. 6, 2010, in Helmand province, Afghanistan, when Taliban gunfire hit the young Marine handler just after he had secured Eli to his leash.
All of Eli's explosive-finding skills couldn't stop the three Taliban bullets from taking his 20-year-old handler's life. Eli had instinctively crawled atop his slain handler when he fell to the ground.
"It had given me some comfort knowing Colton wasn't alone over there," Kathy Rusk said in February 2011 when they became only the second family to adopt the dog of a fallen service member. "He'd call home and everything was about Eli and how Eli thought everything was his."
Now stands a national monument that recognizes military working dogs and handlers, a quest started in 2001 by John Burnam, a Vietnam scout dog handler and author of two books on military working dogs.
"This is a great day for Joint Base San Antonio and the Department of Defense," said Brig. Gen. Bob LaBrutta, 502nd Air Base Wing and JBSA commander. "To the working dog members and the dogs in the audience, this is your day. I'm so glad Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland could be the home of this monument. "
The Department of Defense Military Working Dog program, the world's largest training center for military dogs and handlers, has been based at JBSA-Lackland since 1958. The DOD Military Working Dog Veterinary Service and the Holland Working Dog Hospital, the largest for military working dogs, are also located on JBSA-Lackland.
Burnam's diligence now pays tribute and honors military working dogs of all wars through the national monument. He said the monument would make certain that military working dogs will never be forgotten again as they were in Vietnam.
"As a scout dog handler in Vietnam I experienced first hand how valuable these dogs are at saving soldiers' lives," Burnam said. "Yet despite their value, when we pulled out of Vietnam, the dogs were left behind. They were heroes and they were left to die.
"As a nation we owe our war dogs a tremendous debt of gratitude," he said. "Their selfless service, loyalty and sacrifices to our country must never be forgotten. The U.S. Military Working Dog Teams National Monument is a treasure for us all to ensure they are honored and remembered forever."
The monument's main granite pedestal features the U.S. military's four prominent working dog breeds since World War II: Doberman pinscher, German shepherd, Labrador retriever and Belgian Malinois.
A nine-foot tall bronze dog handler represents all U.S. military dog handlers who served in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War and the war on terrorism. Another design feature is the "Not Forgotten Fountain," a fully functional bronze dog and handler water fountain that epitomizes the bond between dog and handler.
Kathy Rusk and her family identify with that bond.
"We have Eli and the comfort he gives us," Kathy Rusk said. "The dog handlers from Vietnam never had that and it breaks my heart (for them).
"They (Vietnam dog handlers) had to leave their dog knowing they'd never see them again," she said. "They have this to remember them forever. It's just amazing."