The family of Army Spc. Justin Rollins finally got to hold one of the last things he held.
A female puppy the 22-year-old nuzzled the night before his death in a roadside bombing in Iraq frolicked Friday in New Hampshire, completing a nearly 6,000-mile journey that Rollins' family and girlfriend began pushing for after seeing photos of him with a newborn litter.
"It was the last bit of happiness Justin had," said Rollins' girlfriend, Brittney Murray.
Rollins and some other soldiers from the 82nd Airborne found the puppies outside an Iraqi police station March 4 but weren't allowed to bring them back into their barracks. Rollins was killed the next day in Samarra.
After Murray saw the photos, she sought help finding the short-haired dog, named Hero as a reminder of the man who planned to propose to her on his next visit home, she and his mother said. U.S. Rep. Paul Hodes contacted the U.S. Central Command, which ordered the 82nd to retrieve the pup and turn it over to delivery company DHL.
Hero arrived Thursday night at Kennedy International Airport in New York, visited a veterinarian and arrived in New Hampshire overnight. The floppy-eared pooch — mostly white, with brown spots along the right side of its muzzle and paws still too big for its 15-pound body — was a hit Friday as she sniffed around Hodes' office, pausing to piddle on the carpet.
Whether the mixed-breed puppy is the one in the photo didn't matter. Several people claimed credit for the dog's name, but everyone agreed it was a fitting tribute to Rollins, whose parents said he was always an animal lover.
"We have a dog and three cats at home. When he was little, they all were on his bed," said his mother, Rhonda.
Rollins was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with a baseball signed by Red Sox player David Ortiz, who met him last summer shortly before Rollins' unit was deployed.
"He really did believe in what he was fighting for," Rhonda Rollins said of her paratrooper son. "I think he'd be thrilled there was a positive story from the negative thing that happened to us. ... He was such a happy-go-lucky guy."