Marine Rescues Dog From War Zone

By STEVE KORNACKI, The Tampa Tribune

Published: February 17, 2008

Updated: 11:57 pm

Nubs is a survivor of cruelty; mascot to the soldiers who saved his life; and a big, furry, lovable symbol of freedom from the war in Iraq.

The spirited German shepherd-border collie mix is scheduled to arrive via airplane late Wednesday evening in Chicago, where a dinner of steak and Pop-Tarts - the dog loves the strawberry ones - awaits.

He then will fly to San Diego on Thursday, where he will be adopted by friends of Marine Maj. Brian Dennis until his owner returns from a second tour of Iraq.

Dennis, a St. Petersburg native, found Nubs near death in December with a stab wound in his left side. He said an Iraqi border policeman stabbed him with a screwdriver.

"The wound was deep and nasty and likely punctured one of his lungs," Dennis, 36, wrote in an e-mail.

"I thought he was going to die."

He rubbed Neosporin on the wound and hoped for the best. It was a bone-chilling 18 degrees outside and Dennis slept with Nubs to keep him warm. The dog made it through that night, and the next day, and the next. Dennis and the 12-man special operations unit he leads in al-Anbar province nursed him back to full strength.

Dennis named the dog Nubs because an Iraqi cut off most of the animal's ears when he was a puppy. Dennis asked the man who did it why he committed such a cruel act.

"He told me it was to make him tough and more alert, and to make him hear better," Dennis wrote. "I pulled my combat knife off of my gear and told my interpreter to ask him how he'd like it if I cut off his ears ... you know, to make him tougher ... more alert. He laughed nervously and I just stared at him."

Nubs was the alpha dog, the leader of a wild pack residing in the ruins of an Iraqi border fort. It took him awhile to warm up to Dennis and the Marines, even though they showed him such love. His trust of humans needed to be won back.

Dennis and his men knew they couldn't take Nubs when they had to temporarily relocate their combat outpost 70 miles away one week after the dog recovered.

"We had too much going on mission-wise to take on a dog," he said.

Nubs chased them in their Hummers when they left.

"Nubs might be the fastest dog I've ever seen," Dennis wrote. "We would have to drive faster and faster just to leave him behind. He could hang with us up to about 35 mph and then would start to fall back."

Nubs' Incredible Journey

Two days later, while Dennis was working on a Hummer at the new camp, he looked up and couldn't believe his eyes. It was Nubs.

"He tracked us nearly 70 miles," Dennis wrote friends back home. "I won't even address the gauntlet he had to run of dog packs, wolves and God knows what else to get here. When he arrived he looked like he'd just been through a war zone. ... Uh, wait a minute. He had."

They took him back after their mission and built him a doghouse. He became a mascot and pet to the Marines.

But as fun and special as Nubs was, he also was against the rules. Marines can't have animals in war zones. So Dennis, with a mandated four-day window to get his dog to safety, worked feverishly on a plan to get Nubs to freedom. Friends sympathetic to the cause they learned of via e-mail donated $3,500 to a "Save the Nubs Fund" to help transport the pooch back to the states.

"It's the least we can do for him after he walked nearly 70 miles and found us," Dennis wrote.

Nubs was going home.

The Long Trip To America

Before Dennis took him to a transfer point into Jordan to begin his circuitous journey, he wrote, "He acted a little strange all day yesterday. Dogs are funny like that; sometimes they just know when something is up. He was hiding in the corner all day prior to the delivery ... He'd never done that before."

Dennis took him on one last ride on a combat patrol that included the doggie dropoff.

"Next thing we knew, Nubs was heading west to Amman," he wrote. "Nubs received a checkup and vaccinations in the capital city of Jordan before being allowed to fly to the U.S. this week."

Contacted via e-mail by The Tampa Tribune on Feb. 9, Dennis replied, "I'm not really looking for coverage on this thing, not now anyways." He was concerned that the story could cause problems for him and others.

But the story of Nubs and Dennis was reported last week on CNN and other television outlets. Ellen DeGeneres learned of it, and said Friday on her show, "When Maj. Dennis returns in March, I so want to meet him ... I think you're an amazing, amazing guy."

Dennis' mother, Marsha Cargo of St. Pete Beach, said DeGeneres wants to have Nubs and her son reunited on the show. Dennis has received e-mail about Nubs from people as far away as New Zealand.

He wrote that Nubs is going to become "the most famous dog since Spuds MacKenzie."

"It's the most beautiful story," Cargo said.

Nubs will get that steak and Pop-Tarts meal in Chicago from the father of Capt. Ron Hess, Dennis' operations officer.

Then it's off to San Diego, where Dennis, a Lakewood High School and University of South Florida graduate, is scheduled to return in late March and resume his service as an F-18 Hornet fighter pilot based at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station.

His friends, Chrissy and Eric Sjoberg of San Diego, will keep Nubs until Dennis gets back. The immigrant dog will work with a trainer, Graham Bloem, for domestication. Until then, the major can keep an eye on Nubs' son, Tank.

"He is getting big and is the alpha in a new pack," Dennis wrote.

Dennis envisioned Nubs living the good life in America after running for his life in Iraq:

"He was going to go to the dog beach in San Diego and play in the waves while beautiful girls in bikinis fawned over him. At least that's the way it went in my head. Nubs was going to have a nice, sunny life and never be cold again. Nubs was going to San Diego, where he'd live like a little Rock Star."

Reporter Steve Kornacki can be reached at (813) 731-8170 or