Military Heroes and Their Hero Dogs

PHOTO: Sgt. Charles Shuck and dog Gabe
Wallace McBride/Courtesy Charles Shuck
Sgt. First Class Charles Shuck and Gabe

Sgt. First Class Charles Shuck and his dog Gabe spent three years working together in war zones, but now they're on a different kind of mission—they're campaigning for the 2012 Human Association's Hero Dog Awards on Oct. 6.

Gabe won the military category and is now hoping to win the $10,000 top prize, which would go to the duo's charity partner, the United States War Dog Association.

"Gabe is no more of a hero dog than any of those other working dogs out there. They're all trained to do a job. With me, he's my hero," Shuck told ABCNews.com. "We are so honored and humbled to be representing every war dog out there."

Shuck and Gabe worked together from 2006 to 2009 and spent 13 months deployed to Iraq.

A pound puppy from Houston, Gabe became the most successful canine in Iraq during his time there. The specialized search dog had a total of 26 finds of weapons and explosives. The average number of finds for most dogs is 5 to 10.

"He went with the flow," Shuck said. "He was a hard worker. He worked and worked and worked until I knew he wasn't searching anymore."

Shuck said Gabe was also invaluable in terms of bringing soldiers a slice of home and, in some cases, solace.

"Just to bring a sense of home to a soldier over there who may have lost battle buddies or to go to a hospital, it takes a special dog," he said. "Sometimes that dog is what keeps you sane over there, especially after you lose a friend lose buddies. The dog is something you can come home to and, if need be, cry."

When Gabe retired, he got to make his permanent home with Shuck.

"He's my life. I can't sugarcoat it or sound manly about it. He's everything," he said. "The dog is with you 24/7. The dog lives with you, sleeps with you…you're thousands of miles away from home, you don't have the comforts of home, and your best friend is that dog."

PHOTO: Sgt. Jessica Ruggiero and her dog Beny, a patrol explosive detector dog who was reunited with her after he retired.
Courtesy of Jessica Ruggiero
Sgt. Jessica Ruggiero and Beny

Beny the dog was assigned to Sgt. Jessica Ruggiero right out of his training in Germany and it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

The team spent two-and-a-half years working together from 2006 to 2008. Beny specialized as an explosive-detector dog. They were deployed to Iraq and did a mission for President George Bush together when he went to Europe.

"There have been times where I'm glad that he was there," Ruggiero told ABCNews.com. "I'm glad that he was there because, otherwise, God only knows where I would be right now or where other people would be right now."

Beny was also Ruggiero's first source of comfort when a fellow soldier would be killed.

"When we lost people from the battalion, the first thing I would do is bring Beny and let him go hang out with everybody because they're grieving," she said. "It's such an amazing feeling to have this dog run up and lean on you, as if he's saying, 'I love you. Pet me.'"

Beny had to retire after a few years because he reached a point where he refused to continue working. Ruggiero cannot pinpoint which incident it was that may have spooked him, but she knew when he retired that his home was with her.

An organization called Military Working Dog Adoptions helped raise money to pay for Beny to fly from Germany to Ruggiero's home in Fort Polk, La.

"He's here and he's loving up the kids and we love him and he's just this sweet, gentle giant," she said.

PHOTO: An unlikely beam of light illuminates a Hero, a military dog on an overcast day.
Kimberly Launier/ABC News
Spc. Justin Rollins and Hero

Two weeks before Justin Rollins was scheduled to return home to Newport, N.H. from Iraq in 2007, he called his girlfriend and said he couldn't wait for him to see some really great pictures he had taken.

By the time the photos arrived the next day, Rollins was dead.

As family and friends were grieving, Rollins' girlfriend Brittney Murray saw that he had emailed her the pictures before he died. The photos showed a happy Rollins playing with puppies small enough to fit in the palm of his hand. His family was comforted by how happy Rollins looked in the photos.

At Rollins' burial, Army brass asked his mother Rhonda Rollins if there was anything they could do for her. She said there was.

"I said, 'I want one of the puppies that Justin held in Iraq the night before he was killed,'" Rollins told ABC News.

She was told that they could get her any dog she wanted, but she insisted, "I want one of those puppies that Justin held. And he just looked at me like, 'Yeah, sure.'"

The family had already decided that they would name the puppy Hero and they were committed to honor their son by making sure Hero's was the last life he saved.

From there, "Operation Hero" was born and local media led to national media coverage and, with help from the Army, Hero eventually made his way from Iraq to Bahrain to Brussels to New York and, finally, to New Hampshire.

When Hero and the Rollins family were featured on ABC News' "20/20," one of the cameras captured a dramatic sunbeam shining down on Hero in the Rollins' backyard. "I truly, truly believe I'll see him again, because he sent us a sign so many times that, that he's okay, things that are too astronomical to not believe," Rollins' father Skip Rollins said.

PHOTO: Sergeant Rex the Marine bomb-sniffing dog will be reunited with his former handler who had launched a high-profile campaign to adopt him.
schumer.senate.gov
Cpl. Megan Leavey and Sergeant Rex

Marine Cpl. Megan Leavey and bomb-sniffing dog Sergeant Rex were injured together in Iraq during a bomb blast in 2006.

"I was on foot patrol in Iraq during the day, there were insurgents watching us from afar and they detonated an IED at a certain point when we got close," Leavey told ABC News' San Diego affiliate KGTV. "It was real scary, it was a long day for us, we got through it together and recovered together after."

The injury ended Leavey's military career and she returned to New York where she tried unsuccessfully to adopt Sgt. Rex. The military denied her request because they thought the dog would be able to continue working when he recovered from his injuries.

Sgt. Rex served three combat tours in Iraq and spent 11 years as a military working dog before he retired.

Leavey began a new adoption effort earlier this year when she learned that Sgt. Rex was about to be retired. She launched a high-profile campaign to adopt him. She had received support from veterans groups and New York Sen. Charles Schumer, who started a petition on her behalf called "Saving Sgt. Rex." Almost 22,000 people signed the petition.

In April, the team was finally reunited.

"I'm just glad that we're both together now and this is able to happen," said Leavey. "He's my partner, and we just developed such a strong bond with each other. This is what he deserves."

PHOTO:Pte. Conrad Lewis from the 4th Battalion, Parachute Regiment, is shown with his dog, Pegasus.
Courtesy Antony Lewis
Pvt. Conrad Lewis and Pegasus

On Feb. 9, 2010, in the Helmand province of Afghanistan, a bullet shot from a Taliban sniper bounced off of Pvt. Lewis Henry and deflected onto his patrol companion, Pvt. Conrad Lewis.

Lewis, 22, was killed instantly.

The family's last link to its deceased son was Pegasus, Lewis' adopted mutt, a street dog from Afghanistan with whom he shared "love, comfort and biscuits."

Two weeks after Lewis had been deployed to Afghanistan, he wrote a letter to his family about the caramel-colored stray dog he had found.

"She followed them throughout, avoiding shots and IEDs over a six-month period," Lewis' father Antony Lewis said. "She would lie with Conrad when he lay down and get up when they moved off, even in nine-hour contacts. She was a real companion, a true soldier's friend."

Antony Lewis believes that Pegasus was a source of comfort to his son during his deployment in Afghanistan.

"Paratroopers are hardened individuals, but I think they need something that is a comfort but also a bit of reality and humanity," he said. "When you've been out fighting Taliban all day, you lose perspective…It's great to come back [at the end of the day] to a little bit of home and a little bit of perspective."

In July 2011, after a joint rescue effort by the British nonprofit organization Nowzad and Lewis' fellow soldiers, Pegasus was returned to the U.K. to be reunited with Lewis' father, fulfilling his last wish.

"I think [Pegasus] is a link to his time there, but also a link to him," Antony Lewis said. "[Conrad] put time and effort into her, and she put time and effort into him. I think there's a strange bond between people and their dogs."

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