Roy Exum: My Best Christmas Present
by Roy Exum
posted December 25, 2007
As I write, this Christmas itself is still hours away, but the best present under the tree for me this year, not only this year but in a really long time, came about 1:30 Monday morning. It was in the form of an e-mail from a man I have never met but who I share a kindred soul.
Last Saturday I wrote a story about a dog. More specifically, a Marine Corps "War Dog" who, after long and meritorious service to our nation, will spend this Christmas Day, as well as what I hope will be many to follow, in Quitman, Miss.
I came across the story as I perused the Internet earlier in the week and was drawn to it, not just because I adore dogs, but because the animal's handler and best friend, Cpl. Dustin Jerome Lee, will not be sharing Christmas today with his family. He, at age 20, was killed by an incoming mortar round when his platoon was attacked in Falluja, Iraq.
His big shepherd war dog had to be pulled away by other Marines before the medics could approach Cpl. Lee and "Lex," as the dog is called, was also injured. Still, the Corps made sure "Lex" attended his master's funeral in March after spending countless nights bunkered down in a fox hole beside him.
Well, that was all I needed to mash my hot button. So I wrote how the Lee family had asked to adopt the dog, now eight years old, and how the Marine Corps has never allowed such a thing, but how, in the spirit of Christmas itself, things finally clicked. This weekend "Lex" was brought to his new home in Quitman, where Dustin is buried nearby.
After two tours in Iraq, that dog is basking by the fire in the Lee house this morning, playing with Dustin's younger brother and sister, and feeling a different kind of love for the very first time. It is one thing for a grateful Marine to hug you after you flush a would-be assassin out of a darkened stairwell, but altogether another to have a small child cuddle with you on a sofa as you both watch Jimmy Stewart in the movie "It's A Wonderful Life."
Little did I know that Brian Rich, who now lives in Chattanooga, would be pointed to my story by his fiancé. Nor did I know that Brian, quite a man himself, was the one who collected the signatures, the documents and did all types of things to make the adoption occur – Dustin was Brian's nephew.
Brian wrote me a magnificent note, one that I also now cherish, but on the morning of Christmas Eve came another. Allow me to share parts of it:
"I just read your article on Dustin and Lex. We were truly blessed to have a son like Dustin. He came into this world as a 10-pound, 2-ounce bundle of joy that we were always proud of.
"He spent his life trying to make other people happy. It was usually something simple like "do you need anything" or "can I help" or just a "how's it going?".
" … Dusty left a note with one of (his friends) before he left for Iraq. It said "John 15:13 says: GREATER LOVE HAS NO ONE THAN THIS, THAT HE LAY DOWN HIS LIFE FOR HIS FRIENDS. JESUS WAS WILLING TO GIVE HIS LIFE FOR ALL. IN CHRIST, Dustin J Lee."
" … We are happy to have Lex in our home and he plays with Dustin's brother (Camryn) and sister (Madyson) all the time. I think Lex tries to make them happy just as he did for Dustin. Lex was at his side all the way to the end of his life.
'I thank you for honoring Dustin and Lex and wish you a Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year."
(Signed) Jerome Lee
Proud Dad of Cpl. Dustin Jerome Lee
* * * * *
Mr. Lee has no way of knowing that one night several years ago, I couldn't sleep, which is rare for me, so I clicked on the bedside radio for a minute and heard that three Army Rangers had just been killed in Iraq. This was when my son was a captain in a Ranger unit, and for three days I couldn't shake from my mind that terrible scene in the movie "Saving Private Ryan" where the olive drab Army limousine drives slowly up the road to that Iowa farmhouse.
Lord, I was scared to death because all a daddy can do when he knows a son is in vicious combat is to pray that God will somehow "encircle the child in a thicket of thorns." Trust me, I've been there more than once. The difference is my son came back after four years and is doing just fine.
Today in Mississippi, Dustin Lee won't be there. So, in one of the greatest emotional swirls I can remember, the story of Lex rolling into Quitman on Friday behind a long line of fire engines and Patriot Guard motorcycles and what seemed like half the fleet of the Mississippi State Patrol just undid me.
So now, on a Christmas Eve, a father of a boy who "laid down his life for his friends" takes the time to write me a letter at 1:30 in the morning to simply say, "thank you."
No matter what may come down the chimney, nothing in the world, the whole wide world, can touch that.