Retired war dog visits Yoakum Catholic school (Video)
YOAKUM - A book started it all.
Last year, St. Joseph Catholic School reading teacher Paula Raney stumbled upon a book by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent about dogs bred as soldiers for American warfare.
Her good friend Crystal Blakeney immediately came to mind.
About two years ago, Blakeney's nephew, Lance Cpl. Colton Rusk, was fatally shot by a sniper while serving with the U.S. Marine Corps. in Afghanistan.
The soldier, who never left Rusk's side, was a black Labrador named Eli.
"As a reading teacher, I wanted to show the power of a book," Raney said. "That sometimes books are about real people and real events."
Gasps and whispers welcomed the retired military dog into the school's library Monday.
Kathy Rusk, the mother of the fallen soldier, clung tightly to Eli's collar as the reading teacher introduced the family to a crowd of fourth- through eighth-grade students seated on the floor.
A newspaper clipping detailing the government's transfer of ownership to the Rusk family in 2010 was pasted on a navy blue poster board next to photos of the fallen soldier and his faithful friend.
Gov. Rick Perry made a call to the Pentagon requesting that the 20-year-old soldier's family be given the military-trained dog, his mother said.
"I'm not really one for politics, but I do know he is a good man," Rusk said. "He got the ball rolling and knew the higher-ups in command."
The mother said she's only heard of one other family in the history of military-dog breeding to be issued the animal assigned to a deceased family member.
"It took them nine months to complete the process," Rusk said. "They invest thousands of dollars into these dogs."
She wore on her left wrist a black rubber bracelet with her son's date of birth, date of death and name. It rubbed against the dog's leash.
She also wore a memorial necklace with her son's photograph. It dangled above the happy Labrador's snout as Rusk scratched him behind the ears.
The majority of the presentation to the Catholic school students consisted of Colton Rusk's journey to becoming a soldier and his deeply rooted friendship with his dog, Eli.
"In his last letter, he wrote that he was tired of being there," said his mother. "But that he knew he had to stay there for the kids and help get the schools running there."
Upon arriving at the Rusk family home, Eli bolted for his late partner's childhood bedroom, she said.
"He sleeps with my youngest son now," said Rusk. "It's been a big help for our family having Eli with us."