For all of you pet lovers out there, grab your tissues…
Army Spec. Justin Rollins was an avid animal lover, known for taking in strays around his home in New Hampshire. So it’s no surprise that when he and his unit came across a group of stray puppies sleeping in a upturned outhouse they jumped at the chance to play with the little guys and snap a few pictures.
Later that night, Rollins told his girlfriend to be on the lookout tomorrow for an email with some very cute pictures…but that email never came.
The next day Rollins was killed by a massive roadside bomb. When the photos of him with the puppies finally got home, one stuck out. It was a photo of the 23-year old soldier holding a puppy close to his chest, glowing in joy. It was at that time his family knew they had to have one of those puppies…that puppy.
After an ordeal that took years, and the strong efforts by Senators, Governors and Congressman, the Rollin’s family was able to secure the exact same puppy in the picture! Years later, they took the dog (now named Hero) to Arlington National Cemetery to visit her old friend. It was an incredible reunion…
This was as close as Hero the dog had been to her old buddy Justin since they were photographed together in 2007. In that picture, they were snout-to-chest, a 23-year-old soldier cuddling a weeks-old stray puppy in Samarra, Iraq. But Wednesday, Hero could get no nearer than six feet, a grown dog snuffling above a grave at Arlington National Cemetery.
“Whaddaya think, girl, you guys glad to be back together?” asked Mitchel Rollins, patting Hero’s back, raising a little cloud of fur in the sun slanting across his son’s final resting place. “Are you still shedding? You gonna leave some hairs on Justin? I think he would like that.”
Whatever this unlikely reunion between a dog-loving soldier and the last dog he loved meant to Justin, it certainly meant everything to his family, which is why they moved military mountains to make it happen. His mother, Rhonda Rollins, knelt on the grass, one hand on Hero, the other tracing the black letters on white marble: Justin Allan Rollins.
“You just don’t expect to see the name you pick out for your baby on a headstone,” she said, even as her baby’s dog demanded her attention, deflecting her grief, doing its job.
Dog and soldier took very different paths to Arlington. On March 5, 2007, one day after he befriended the puppy, Army Spec. Rollins was killed by a massive roadside bomb. Two weeks later, he was here in Section 60.
Hero’s trip was longer and stranger. It started when an Iraqi soldier waved over Rollins and his unit to see something interesting outside a police station. It was a litter of dusty blond puppies, sleeping in an old upturned outhouse.
A group of the men jumped at the chance to fraternize with some local critters. Rollins in particular was a self-professed animal nut, with a beloved pit bull sleeping on his bed in New Hampshire and a history of rescuing strays. When his unit was sent to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, he got dozens of abandoned dogs into shelters.
The guys passed around the Iraqi pups, snapped a bunch of pictures. Later that night, Rollins called his girlfriend back home and told her to expect some very cute photos from him the next day. That e-mail never arrived.
“We never heard from Justin again,” Rhonda says.
When they did see the pictures, sent by one of his buddies, they were entranced: Justin nose to nose with a brown-eared pup; Justin cradling the one with a patch over its eye. His joy was palpable.
“It was so wonderful to see how happy he was,” Rhonda says. “Those were his last happy moments.”
When his flag-draped transfer case arrived at an airfield in New Hampshire, an Army general asked the family members if there was anything he could do for them.
As a matter of fact, there was.
“I want one of those puppies,” Rhonda answered immediately.
The officer nodded and said they would be glad to get her any kind of dog she liked. No, Rhonda said, she wanted one of those dogs. From the pictures. Justin’s dogs. She already had a box full of his personal effects, but she knew his dog could provide something his dog tags couldn’t — an armful of her son’s loving warmth.