Nashuan part of bringing dog to late soldier's family

This article was published in The Telegraph on March 13, 2011.

Hero captured the state’s heart in 2007 when, as a puppy, she was brought from Iraq to the family of Justin Rollins, a 22-year-old soldier killed in action.

Now, four years later, Animal Planet will take Hero’s story to the nation. And Nashua’s own Cmdr. Griffin Dalianis will be part of the show.

Rollins’ longtime girlfriend, Brittany Murray, received a message through her Facebook page from The Discovery Channel asking about the possibility of doing a feature on Hero.

“I thought it was joke,” Murray said.

When she realized the request was in earnest, she contacted the Rollins family.

“That was a complete surprise,” said Skip Rollins, Justin Rollins’ father. “But I never say no to her, so I said, ‘Sure.’ ”

In January, producers for the show came to the family’s home in Newport, and the Rollinses spent hours in interviews. Skip Rollins said he felt a connection with the show’s assistant producer upon learning he lost a close friend in the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001. Rollins said Sept. 11 was the motivating factor in his son’s enlistment in the military.

“He promised us he’d do a good job,” Rollins said.

Murray also said she found the Animal Planet crew great to work with.

“They’re just a really great group of people who genuinely care,” Murray said. “It means a lot to have them invested in our story.”

Dalianis received a call from an Animal Planet producer a few months ago asking him to talk about his role in making sure Hero made it home. Dalianis agreed, and met the Animal Planet crew in Concord.

“The cameras were no more than 3 feet from my face,” Dalianis said of the interview, remembering how he was directed to look at the camera as he answered questions. “I never saw so much audio and visual equipment in my life. It looked like a Best Buy, there was so much stuff there.”

Dalianis said telling his story for the camera was intimidating – trying to make sure he didn’t mix up his words or make a mistake.

“I’m still afraid of what I’m going to sound like,” he said.

But overall, the experience was a good one, allowing Dalianis to make peace with a difficult time in New Hampshire’s history.

“Having this done is a little bit of catharsis for me,” Dalianis said. “When he died, several other soldiers died in those three weeks. It was like I was going to a funeral or a wake every two days. So many young people.”

Dalianis said he’s glad Hero is going to have her moment of fame.

“It’s good for families to know that their sons and daughters have not been forgotten,” he said.

Army Spec. Justin Rollins was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq on March 5, 2007. Rollins was assigned to the 2/505 3rd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne as an infantryman. During foot patrols, several soldiers frequently saw a pregnant dog and checked in on her during the patrols.

The night before he died, Justin Rollins found the dog had given birth in the back room of an Iraqi police station. According to his father, Justin Rollins yelled for his men. They came in with guns drawn, and found Rollins lying on his back on the floor covered in puppies.

“It’s just the way he loved animals,” Skip Rollins said. “It was kind of a release from the war for him – kids and dogs.”

Skip Rollins said his son never liked to talk about the lives he had taken in Iraq, but wanted to focus on the lives he saved, including those of stray animals, in the war-torn country.

“Saving lives was more important to him,” Rollins said. “… He was running around trying to rescue everything. To us, (Hero) was the last life he ever saved.”

And for the Rollins family, Dalianis was the first point of contact to getting one of the puppies.

Dalianis, as the civilian aide for the Secretary of the Army in New Hampshire, is charged with the task of meeting the remains of soldiers at the closest airport. Typically, Dalianis visits with families of soldiers killed in action after the casualty officer and chaplain meet with the family.

Dalianis has served as a civilian aide for the Secretary of the Army for 10 years. He is also chairman of the Mayor’s Veterans Council in Nashua and chairman for the Veterans Administration Rehabilitation Committee in Washington, D.C., a post to which he was appointed by former President George W. Bush.

He is the commander of Chapter 7 of the Disabled American Veterans in Nashua. Dalianis served during the Vietnam War in the Air Force for four years.

Dalianis arrived in Newport to meet with the Rollins family the day before Justin Rollins’ wake. It was then, Dalianis said, that Rollins’ mother, Rhonda Rollins, approached Dalianis about getting one of those puppies.

Dalianis spent the night in Newport and attended the services, which were held at the Newport Opera House.

“It was the largest wake of the 30-something funerals for servicemen I had gone to up to that point,” Dalianis said, adding that more than 2,000 people turned out to bid Rollins farewell.

Convinced that a family who lost their son fighting for the United States deserved their wish, Dalianis promised to do what he could to get a puppy.

“When you look into the face of a mother who has borne the brunt of this war with the loss of her child, you can’t say no to anything,” Dalianis said.

Justin Rollins held and took photos with several of the puppies. But, Skip Rollins said, the fact that his family has the dog with which his son was photographed was just chance.

“It just works out that she was in the pictures,” Rollins said.

Rollins credited Murray for being the “driving force” behind bringing Hero to her new home. Murray stayed in touch with Dalianis about getting one of the puppies from Iraq. Dalianis, in turn, called the Secretary of the Army. Meanwhile, he advised the family to begin contacting their congressmen.

The soldiers who served with Justin Rollins had taken one of the puppies, but hadn’t received official permission to get the dog. After being reprimanded by their first sergeant for having the dog without permission, the soldiers let the dog go.

When the Rollins family received permission to bring the dog home, the soldiers went back to the litter. By then, Murray said, there were only a few puppies left.

Sgt. Jason Wheeler, Justin Rollins’ friend, said he remembered Rollins playing with Hero, and took her for the family.

“The dog is just awesome,” Skip Rollins said. “She just reminds us a lot of him – a lot of personality and always on the go.”

Murray said when Hero came to New Hampshire, she slept with Murray that first night. Murray said Hero has a wild side – she’s territorial and was hard to house break – but she’s also a love.

“I really feel we have a very special connection,” Murray said. “You can tell at times she’s very … appreciative, almost.”

And, Skip Rollins said, Hero always remembers Murray.

“I think she definitely remembers that she’s the one who got her over here,” Rollins said, describing how Hero gets so excited to see Murray that she starts shaking with excitement and urinates when she spots the woman.

But Murray believes it’s Justin Rollins who deserves the credit.

“It just adds to Justin’s memory,” Murray said. “Justin got her home. I couldn’t have got her here without him.

“I know he would be so honored to have her here.”

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