Bringing Hero Home: Soldier's Puppy Gives Hope to Grieving Family

A stray puppy in Iraq helped heal broken hearts of soldier's girlfriend, family.

November 22, 2011, 12:04 PM

Nov. 24, 2011 — -- Don't let the sweet face fool you.

The dog with a big grin and eye patches of chocolate fur may have one of the most incredible tales you'll hear this Thanksgiving. It is the stuff of legends.

Her story begins in a faraway land, but the story of the man who saved her starts in the small town of Newport, New Hampshire, where leaves burn up the sky in the colors of rubies and fire. And "Live Free or Die" is more than a saying.

Justin Rollins became a soldier when he found courage in war. He became a man when he found strength in love. And his family found its destiny when they realized faith doesn't have to end -- even when a life does.

Brittney Murray remembers the first time she saw Justin Rollins in an economics class.

"It's this gaze, and when he looks back at you, you kind of get sucked in."

It was love at first sight, but Justin was a high school senior, Brittney, a freshman.

"Mom and dad didn't like that much," Brittney said of their age difference.

"They were secretly meeting each other, I think, because her parents are pretty strict. So finally he said to her, you're too young...So they ended it," said Justin's mother, Rhonda Rollins.

Justin, inspired by the events of Sept. 11, had decided to become a soldier.

"He really was traumatized, like the rest of us, enough so that he made up his mind. He wanted to join the military and support our country," said Rhonda.

Justin signed on in hope of becoming an Army Ranger.

"He came home and he came running up the stairs, "Airborne! Ranger, baby! Infantry!" And I looked at him and I said, can't you be in the band?" said Rhonda.

As Justin embarked on his new life, Brittney blossomed into a beautiful young woman under the watchful eye of Rhonda Rollins.

"He called one day, and I happened to mention, gee, I saw Brittney in the newspaper, she went to her prom, she is stunning. He said, 'well, I messed that up, didn't I?' I go, no, she's graduating pretty soon. So he had come home."

Brittney was giving a graduation speech as the class president when she received a huge surprise.

"One time I glanced up, and he had just gotten out of Rhonda's convertible," Brittney remembered.

Justin was waiting for her.

"The timing was perfect. Everything fell into place, and it was like just picking back up those initial feelings," said Brittney.

Justin and Brittney quickly fell in love. But it wasn't long before he had to return to duty. In 2006, Justin was deployed to Samarra, Iraq, one of the scorching epicenters of the war.

"We didn't know at the time, when he was over there, that it was the worst possible place," said Rhonda.

"The scariest part, when you're sitting up on your Humvee, are the IEDs, things that you can't see that you know are there," said Jason Wheeler, who was one of Justin's superiors and friend in the 82nd Airborne. "Trying to find them before they blow them up on you. There was one time he got hit in the neck. He just knew there was blood, and he couldn't see his wound, he felt hot metal. But other than that, there's not many occasions that I can remember of him showing fear."

But Justin did have occasions to feel great happiness. Before he left for his tour in Iraq, airport arrival gates had become scenes of joyous reunions with Brittney. Departure gates, however, were torture.

"It had become our life, and then I was like, oh my God, he's leaving. And that's when I had broken down, and there's a picture of us where he's sort of trying to talk me out of being upset," said Brittney.

"They were embracing, that was the last time that we saw him alive," said Skip Rollins, Justin's father.

No one knew in that moment that it was their last moment with Justin. In fact, Justin was making plans to propose to Brittney.

"On the last phone call that he called home, he said I want to take her to Tiffany's and pick out a diamond for her. So I knew my son was going to propose to his girlfriend," said Rhonda.

In March 2007, two weeks before Justin could come home, he made an intriguing phone call to Brittney from his Iraqi base camp.

"He was like, I got some really great pictures, and I can't wait for you to see them. I didn't know what was going to be in it," recalls Brittney.

The mysterious pictures would arrive by email the next day. But by then, Justin Rollins would be dead.

"I remember he said I love you twice to me that night, and that was the last time that I heard from him," said Brittney.

"At six thirty in the morning I was getting ready for work, and I felt a jolt just go right through me. And instinctively I thought of Justin, and I thought, boy, I hope everything's OK, it just was the weirdest feeling I've ever had. And went to work, went on my day, and had no more thoughts of this at all," Rhonda recalled.

"I had the afternoon off. I looked out the window, and I saw a car come up the driveway. Two officers in uniform," said Skip. "I remember what they said to me that day, 'Mr. Rollins, we regret to inform you that your son Justin Rollins was killed in action early today.' You just go empty, you die on the inside."

Adding to their despair was Brittney's broken heart.

"My mom called me, and she goes, Brittney, he's gone. I ended up passing out shortly after I had found out," said Brittney.

"It was hard for my own heart to be broken, and my family's, but to see this little girl that just loved my son so much, it, it really was very, very difficult," Rhonda recalled.

As family and friends were grieving together, something beautiful happens that changes this story forever.

"It was late in the night And I pulled up my email, and Rhonda, I just remember she goes, oh my God, look at his smile, look at his, how happy he is," Brittney said.

The pictures were of Justin, a big solider, playing with puppies small enough to fit in his hand.

"It was just so nice because they were just the day before. It felt like he was still real, he was still here," said Brittney.

Jason Wheeler remembers the night Iraqi police alerted his platoon that some puppies were living in a very strange place.

"They say, hey, there are some puppies on the old port-a-john, which was like a toilet. There's, like, eight puppies laying underneath the toilet. So, we started playing with them, and that's, that's where all the pictures came from that night, that was the night before Justin got killed."

Those sweet images were still on Rhonda's mind when, less than two weeks later, Justin's body was flown home for burial. As customary, Army brass attended the funeral and asked the family what it could do to help.

"I said, I want one of the puppies that Justin held in Iraq the night before he was killed. 'Rhonda, we can get you any dog you want. We'll get you a puppy, just name it, we'll get it.' I want one of those puppies that Justin held. And he just looked at me like, yeah, sure," Rhonda laughed.

A long shot that felt more like a Mission Impossible.

"They said one in a million. And I had already said, because Justin was a hero, the dog, whether it was male or female, it going to be named Hero," said Rhonda.

Even Justin's comrades back in Iraq were skeptical.

"I want nothing more than to get the puppy for them, but I can't, because I'm just a soldier in the world of somebody else's. And, and they're telling me, that's not our job, you can't get the dog," said Jason.

The local newspaper got wind of Brittney and the family's efforts. Soon the front page headlines went national, and passionate public support for 'Operation Hero' helped make it a front burner issue for politicians.

"Somebody got a call, and they said, we've got to get the dog. And they weren't happy about having to get the dog, and I was just like, ' Let's go get the dog!' It's amazing that they were able to pull it off," said Jason.

It was a puppy rescue with real risks.

"I think we were all willing to take a risk, and it wasn't necessarily for the dog at the time, it was for Justin's family," said Jason.

A stray puppy living in an Iraqi war zone suddenly found herself very popular.

"We get it back, and we're cleaning it. It's probably like, what's going on, I'm in a washing machine, I was living in a toilet. She had no clue. You just wait, you'll be running through the green pastures of New Hampshire, you're going to love it," said Jason.

The puppy soon hit the tarmac, and began earning impressive frequent flier miles traveling from Iraq, Bahrain, Brussels and New York before finally landing in New Hampshire to a full-blown media circus fit for a rock star. At Congressman Paul Hodes's office, little Hero claimed the territory her own.

"She christened the carpet," remembered Rhonda.

"One of the biggest decisions for wanting to get Hero out of Iraq was to honor him by saying, this is the last life that he saved, so that's the importance and the love that we have for this dog," said Skip.

"And she gave him the last bit of happiness, by the smiles on his face, when he was holding her, it's just beautiful," Rhonda said.

On the day of our shoot, "20/20" was able to witness something beautiful also. One of our cameras captured a dramatic sunbeam shining down on Hero in Justin's backyard.

"I truly, truly believe I'll see him again, because he sent us a sign so many times that, that he's OK things that are too astronomical to not believe," Skip said.

For more on the incredible story of Justin & Hero, watch Animal Planet's series "Saved" on Monday nights:

Watch the full story on "20/20" Friday at 10 p.m. ET.

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