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.

ByABC News
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.