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December 17, 2007

Home For Christmas

Dustin_lex.jpg This is a different kind of coming home story:

Jerome Lee of Stonewall has been a trooper for Troop H of the Mississippi Highway Patrol since 1982. He can still vividly remember his six-year old son, Dustin, playing in his patrol car.

“He always wanted to call the dispatcher on the radio to tell them I was in service,” said Jerome Lee Thursday afternoon. “I let him play with the siren and lights some. He wanted to become a state trooper.”

But Dustin Jerome Lee won’t be able to fulfill his dream of being a trooper and following in his father’s footsteps. Dustin Lee, 20, died earlier this week serving in the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq — six weeks before he was expected to return home.

The Lee family was notified Tuesday of their sacrifice by Marine Corps officials.

“He was a very focused, intense individual,” said the elder Lee by phone. “He always excelled in everything he set out to do. He had his whole life mapped out.”

Dustin Lee was serving in the 3/14 G Battery, 3rd platoon in Falluja when he was killed. Jerome Lee said his son died of injuries suffered in a mortar attack.

“He was hit in the chest with shrapnel from the blast and was medi-vaced out of the area to a hospital,” said Jerome Lee. “He died a little while later.”

The two men talked the day before Dustin Lee was killed. Jerome Lee said his son was sounding upbeat and in high spirits.

“Maybe it was the knowledge he was coming home in about six weeks. I don’t know. But he left me a voice message on my answering machine before he went out on his last mission,” Jerome Lee said.

Jerome Lee played back the message left by his son. In the message, Dustin Lee said he just wanted to call before he headed out and to tell everyone he loved them.

“He said he’d talk to us later,” Jerome Lee said.

But like so many things we wish for in life, somehow that longed-for tomorrow never came. Dustin's Dad remembers his son with pride:

“He always wanted to help other people,” said Jerome Lee. “He loved his country and was proud to be a Marine.”

Asked, despite the devastating loss, if he was proud of his son’s service to his country and his sacrifice Jerome Lee replied quietly, “Most definitely. I’m very proud of him.”

Some families would have turned inward in their grief, would have shut out the world and thought only of their own pain. But the Lees, in the midst of their own heartbreak, somehow found the grace to remember that they weren't the only ones mourning the loss of their son:

Marine Cpl. Dustin Jerome Lee and his German shepherd, Lex, scoured Iraq for roadside bombs together, slept next to each other and even posed in Santa hats for a holiday photo.

When a mortar attack killed the 20-year-old Marine in Falluja a few months later, Lex, whimpering from his own injuries, had to be pulled away, Lee's father was told.

That strong bond compelled the slain Marine's family to [petition the Marines to] adopt 8-year-old Lex even though the military said he still had two years of service.

The family lobbied the military for months, launched an Internet petition and enlisted the aid of a North Carolina congressman who took their case straight to the Marine Corps' top general.

071202_doghandler2_500_287.jpg But the Marine Corps had doubts. Lex had recovered from his wounds and was still fit for duty. Bomb sniffing dogs are in short supply in the Marine Corps, and they save lives. Would sending Lex home be the right thing to do?

More than eight months later, as members of the Lee family prepare for their first Christmas since Dustin’s death, they have a final request of the Marine Corps: permission to adopt their son’s canine partner.

“I know Dustin would want Lex to be with his family,” said Lee’s uncle, Brian Rich. “They gave their son — he made the ultimate sacrifice. If it brings his family some comfort to see the dog there, then why not?”

But Marine officials say Lex is still on active duty. The 7-year-old dog was wounded in the same explosion that killed Lee, but has fully recovered. The dog is working alongside military police, assisting with force protection at Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, Ga., where Lee was stationed.

The Lee family hasn’t seen the dog since Marines brought him to the funeral in April.

Marine Corps command is “extremely sympathetic to the Lee family’s desire to adopt the military working dog after the tragic incident that claimed the life of his handler,” said Colie Young, a base spokesman. “The command will continue to support the Lee family in the adoption process at the appropriate time, if and when Lex is found unfit for duty and appropriately screened for adoption.”

Undaunted, the Lees took their case straight to the Commandant of the Marine Corps. On December 21st, their persistence will be rewarded when they finally take Lex home for the holidays.

They were always together: the tall, handsome young Marine from Mississippi and the German Shepherd specially trained to help him find roadside bombs. But in the end, that wasn't the most important thing.

The most important thing was that they were both Marines. And when you're a Marine you always have family, no matter what.

I'll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams...

Via Ry (and thanks a lot for making me cry).

Posted by Cassandra at December 17, 2007 12:58 PM

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Man that was some kind of funeral! Fly by and all!

Glad to see Lex is being mustered out early.

Fair Winds and Following Seas Corporal of Marines!
God Bless!

Posted by: Jarheaddad at December 17, 2007 06:03 PM

I think that must have been a tough call. I am not sure what I would have done, not knowing all the facts, but it did seem right somehow to have Lex go to Corporal Lee's family.

At any rate, I thought it was an interesting story.

Posted by: Cassandra at December 17, 2007 11:31 PM

Bittersweet ending - I'm glad that Lex will live out his days with a family that loves him. Wonderful tribute, Cass.

Posted by: Deb at December 18, 2007 12:46 AM

Wish I'd had time to really do something with it, but I don't see that happening any time soon :p

Posted by: Cassandra at December 18, 2007 05:25 AM

Not wanting to put a jinx on the blogamahbob urge you are currently experiencing, I'll just say that it's a very nice treat during the holiday season to see you posting again Milady. Kinda like hot Wassel *mumble* and wodka *mumble* by the fire.

And good on the USMC for granting Lex an early honorable discharge to share the remainder of his days with the Lee's. Salute.

Posted by: bthun at December 18, 2007 09:49 AM

What a great Christmas gift! A modern day "Christmas Story" from Cassandra and a reminder of what Semper Fi means to our military family of Patriots.

Got Bless the family Lee and the stalwart canine Lex both of who exemplify the CORPS values of Duty, Honor, Country.

Thanks for sharing!

Posted by: vet66 at December 18, 2007 11:37 AM

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 12/18/2007 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day...so check back often.

Posted by: David M at December 18, 2007 01:10 PM

Mississippi Patriot Guard Riders along with Alabama and Georgia will be bringing them all the way in from Albany Georgia on Saturday. It will be a welcome home that you have never seen before.

Posted by: stacy lee at December 18, 2007 01:38 PM

I wish I could be there to see it, Stacy. I am sure the South will do Dustin proud. I will have to ask my son if he has heard about this - he's a Georgia cop, but I believe he is a good bit north of Albany.

Posted by: Cassandra at December 18, 2007 01:56 PM

What a wonderful surprise to see you back, Cassandra!

Merry Christmas to you and yours

Posted by: steeplechase at December 18, 2007 10:50 PM

Since I live in Mississippi, I might have to search for info on the run to Quittman.

Lex is not the only working dog living with the Lees, Dustin managed to get his first dog, who was losing sight due to age, transferred into the care of his family.

Awesome story. Awesome family. And one awesome Marine.

Posted by: Anna Puna at December 21, 2007 02:04 AM

I am from Mississippi, born and raised, and I too want to be a State Trooper, however, I first have to finish my agreement. I am also a United States Marine. I am currently serving my second tour in Ramadi Iraq and am stationed out of Hawaii with 1st Batt. 12th Marines Bravo Batt. 1st Platoon. I am very proud to be a Marine. I served my first tour from March 2007 to Octobar 2007, and might have been in Iraq, during the same time as Dustin Lee. Its an honor to be a Marine, and to serve with men like this. I EAS next December, and look to come back to Mississippi and become a State Trooper.
Semper Fi, your sacrafice is not forgotten.

Posted by: Jason at November 28, 2008 11:26 AM

Thanks for stopping by, Jason :)

And thank you for your service. You probably hear that a lot. It sounds trite, but it's one of those things we can never say too many times.

Posted by: Cassandra at November 28, 2008 11:59 AM