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Incredible Journey

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One was the leader of an 11-man U.S. Marine counterinsurgency force on the Iraq-Syria border. The other, the scrappy leader of a wild pack of 11 dogs living in abandoned ruins and subsisting on garbage. In October 2007 these two independent souls bonded quickly over a shared MRE (“Meal Ready-to-Eat,” in this case a helping of spaghetti). But when the U.S. troops left their temporary border patrol camp, man and mutt were separated.

But not for long. The dog, which the man had named Nubs for his stumpy ears, left his pack and crossed the desert–75 miles of sand, rock and wind–to find his human friend again. “What Nubs did,” says Maj. Brian Dennis, “is amazing.” Now Dennis, 38, a career Marine, is sharing it in a new book–one of the few Iraq war tales written for children. Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine & a Miracle follows the pair all the way from Iraq to San Diego, where Nubs has shed his wild dog ways in favor of four walls and the occasional Pop-Tart.

Back in Iraq two years ago, Dennis saw glimmers of the pet Nubs might become. “There was something endearing about him,” says Dennis, a fighter pilot who had done three tours of duty in Iraq, an earlier one in Bosnia, and encountered many strays. “You see a lot of these packs,” he says. “The Iraqis don’t treat dogs as pets.” Far worse, in Nubs’s case: Someone had cut off his ears. But while the rest of his pack shied away, Nubs approached Dennis and submitted to a tummy rub. When Dennis broke camp next morning, Nubs ran after his Humvee for several hundred yards before giving up. Over the next four months, the dog would surprise Dennis and his team by showing up again each time they returned to the area, unwittingly causing them to violate military rules against interacting with found animals. “It’s a rule that makes sense,” Dennis concedes. “Say I go to pet this wild dog, and he mauls my hand. Now I’m combat-ineffective.”

But by then Nubs had grown on the team, particularly Dennis. “There is definitely a special bond between those two,” says Staff Sgt. Joseph Palomo. “Major Dennis has an open heart.”

In December Dennis took his patrol 75 miles from their previous post–the farthest distance from Nubs since their first meeting. He suspected that this was the last he would see of his friend. But two days later a Marine came to Dennis and said, “You’ll never guess who’s outside.”

“I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’ It was Nubs, all bitten up with scars on his face from fighting. He had traveled some of the most nasty, inhospitable desert you can imagine. I have no idea how he did it,” Dennis recalls. “I looked at him and thought, ‘This little guy has earned a trip to America.'”

The U.S. military, which forbids adopting strays but doesn’t have explicit rules about shipping them, might have disagreed. “I kept it all below the radar,” says Dennis, who reached out to family and friends back home, raising $5,000 to fund the trip. “He’s a Marine, and once he has his mind set on something, he’ll do it,” says Staff Sergeant Palomo. “He wasn’t going to leave Nubs behind.”

A Jordanian interpreter helped get Nubs across the border, where the interpreter’s brother could get him vaccinated. In January 2008 Nubs boarded a plane in Amman, Jordan, bound for Chicago, where one of Dennis’s officers had family. “They fed him steak and a Pop-Tart and put him on a plane to San Diego,” where he was met by several of Dennis’s friends. A month later, his tour of duty finished, Dennis followed. “When Nubs saw me, he went crazy,” says Dennis. “He was licking my face. It was fantastic.” Although he initially turned down offers to become an author, Dennis, who is single and lives in San Diego when he is not overseas, finally became convinced that children would love the story. “There is a lesson there for kids,” he says. “The moral is that if you do someone a ‘solid’–animal or person–you get a friend forever.”

OPRAH AND PEOPLE MAGAZINE SALUTE HEROES ACROSS AMERICA

WEDNESDAY, NOV. 25, 2009