SAVANNAH, Ga. – 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 Fallujah 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 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.
On Wednesday, the Marine Corps finally announced Lex could go home to Lee's family. It is the first time the military has granted a dog early retirement to be adopted by someone other than a former handler.
"We knew that's what Dustin would have wanted out of this," said Jerome Lee, the slain Marine's father. "He knew that we would take care of Lex and love him, just like our own."
Lee's family from Quitman, Miss., picked up Lex from the Albany base Friday, exactly nine months after the fatal attack.
Though some shrapnel remains lodged in his back, Lex has otherwise recovered from his wounds and has been serving alongside military policemen at the Albany base since July.
"It is extraordinary," said Col. Christian Haliday, commander of the Marine Logistics Base in Albany, Ga., where the dog is based. "As far as we know, it's the first time that a waiver of policy of this nature has been granted."
Officials at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, which trains dogs for all service branches, confirmed it is the first case of its kind.
Lee joined the Marines after graduating from high school in 2004. His father said his drive to become a dog handler came from Lee's mother, who worked with search-and-rescue dogs for their local emergency management agency when Lee was a boy.
After finishing his military police and dog handler training, the young Marine headed to Albany. Lee adopted his first canine partner, Doenja, from the military and sent him home to Mississippi last year when the 11-year-old dog began losing his sight and had to retire.
Lee formed an equally strong bond with his new partner, Lex.
The military has more than 1,700 dogs that work alongside American troops, including about 260 in the Marines. Their bomb-sniffing skills have been in high demand in Iraq and Afghanistan.
U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., said he discussed the Lees' case with Gen. James T. Conway, the Marine Corps commandant.
"The way I look at this, dogs are being trained every day to be a part of the armed forces," Jones said. "This family gave their son for their country. This is a small gift back to them."