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Marine bends rules to save dog found in Iraq

You couldn’t find a more contented dog than the mutt sprawled on the couch in the TODAY studio, his head resting on his master’s thigh, a loving hand petting around his abbreviated ears.

But if those ears — cut off near the dog’s skull — give the impression that there’s more to this scene than just the timeless bond between a man and a dog, you’d be right. They are the source of his name — Nubs — as well as a reminder of the war-torn land he came from: Iraq.

The man petting him Monday while he talked to TODAY’s Meredith Vieira in New York is a Marine pilot, Maj. Brian Dennis, who met Nubs in October 2007 while on duty at a border fort in Iraq. There are a lot of wild dogs in Iraq, running in packs and hanging out around forts.

Dennis didn’t set out to pick one to be his special friend. That was all Nubs’ doing.

The story of their friendship and Nubs’ eventual transition from dog of war to laid-back California pet is so extraordinary Dennis ended up writing a children’s book about it. The book, “Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine & a Miracle,” was just published by Little, Brown Young Readers.

For Nubs, Dennis and his Marines, it was love at first sight, the major told Vieira.

“As soon as I met him, he just kind of jumped up and I started playing with him,” Dennis said. “The first time we ever met, he just kind of flipped over. I started rubbing his belly. Really, my whole team, we just kind of bonded with him as soon as we met him.”

The dog is a mutt, like all wild dogs in Iraq, but looks like a smallish German shepherd with a pinch of border collie. Because his ears had been lopped off, the Marines named him Nubs.

The ear surgery had been done by an Iraqi soldier, Dennis said. It’s a common practice, meant to give another dog less to grab hold of in a fight and also to make the dogs tougher. “It didn’t make much sense to me,” Dennis said.

Nubs was among a pack of dogs living near their fort with the approval of the Iraqi soldiers. “The Iraqis actually use the dogs as an early-warning system,” Dennis said. “They let them live around the border forts because they’ll alert them to anyone approaching.”

In Iraq, not a dog’s lifeLife is tough enough in Iraq for people, and it isn’t any better for dogs. One day, Dennis went out on patrol in an area where Nubs used to hang out and was alarmed to discover his friend, badly wounded.

“He had a big wound on his left side,” Dennis told Vieira. “One of the Iraqis told me that one of the soldiers had gotten mad and stabbed him with a big screwdriver. He looked terrible. We didn’t think he was going to make it. He was all infected. It was bad.”

Dennis took the dog home with him, applied antibacterial ointment to the wound and let Nubs sleep with him. Expecting to wake up to find Nubs dead, Dennis was surprised and pleased to see that the dog had survived and was getting better.

Eventually, Dennis and his Marines were assigned to a new fort on the Iraq-Jordan border, some 70 to 75 miles away. U.S. Marines and soldiers aren’t allowed to keep pets, so when Dennis climbed in a Humvee and pulled out, he thought he’d seen the last of Nubs.

The dog chased the convoy until it was out of sight. But he didn’t stop. His friend was in that vehicle, and Nubs was going to find him.

A couple of days later, Dennis was inside the Iraqi battalion headquarters at the fort.

“One of my Marines came running in and told me, ‘You’re not going to believe who’s outside.’ I thought he’s talking about a person. I’m like, ‘Who’s outside?’ He’s like, ‘Nubs is outside.’ ”

Dennis said his initial thought was, “It can’t be Nubs. No way.” But he went out to check just the same.

“I go running out there and he just jumps up on me and was going crazy,” Dennis said.

How Nubs found them is anyone’s guess.

“That’s the big mystery. No one really knows how he did it,” Dennis said. “But he saw the direction we went, and he just took off in the direction we went; 70, 75 miles or so is how far he ended up walking, and he found our team. It was just the craziest thing when he walked up. It was just amazing.”

Despite the rule against having pets, Dennis and his Marines built a doghouse for Nubs and let him stay, their reasoning being the adult equivalent of the classic kid’s plea: “He followed me home, Mom. Can I keep him?”

“We’re in the middle of nowhere. Who are we going to hurt?” Dennis said.

Things went well until someone at the fort complained up the command chain about the Marines who were keeping a dog against the rules. Dennis’ commander called him in and gave him a terse order: “Get rid of the dog.”

Nubs leaves Iraq
With the bond between the two so strong, Dennis decided the only thing to do was to send Nubs back home to San Diego. The alternative was to see Nubs die in Iraq, and that wasn’t acceptable.

But shipping the dog home was going to take a substantial sum of money: $5,000. Dennis fired off an e-mail to some friends, one of whom got his story on a local TV station in Florida. When it hit the Internet, the offers of help came flooding in.

“The response was overwhelming,” Dennis said. “So many people wanted to help. It was pretty cool.”

An interpreter who worked for Dennis’ unit had a brother who got Nubs into Jordan, where other friends saw to it that the dog was checked out by the king’s veterinarian. From Jordan, Nubs flew to Chicago and then to San Diego, where one of Dennis’ friends took Nubs in and poured himself into helping the dog adjust to a radically different life. That was in March 2008. A month later, Dennis followed Nubs home.

“He had some adjustment issues,” Dennis said, as his pal lazed on the couch, looking as well-adjusted as it is possible to be. Clearly, Nubs got over them.

Once the story of the Marine and the mutt got out, Dennis started hearing other stories about the special bond between soldiers and canines.

“A lot of soldiers and Marines end up connecting with dogs out there,” Dennis told Vieira. “I heard from a lot of people who’ve been in Vietnam and even World War II. I guess it’s an escape. People who are dog people, they just get it. The dog comes running up to you with his tail wagging. It was an escape from the drudgery, the mundane life out there, the bad things you see at times. It was an escape and now it’s a friend.”

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