In October 2007, Dennis and his team of 11 men were in Iraq patrolling the Syrian border. One day, as his team arrived at a border fort, they encountered a pack of stray dogs -- not uncommon in the barren, rocky desert that was home to wolves and wild dogs.
"We all got out of the Humvee and I started working when this dog came running up," recalls Dennis. "I said, 'Hey buddy' and bent down to pet him." Dennis noticed the dog's ears had been cut. "I said, 'You got little nubs for ears.'" The name stuck. The dog whose ears had been shorn off as a puppy by an Iraqi soldier (to make the dog "look tougher," Dennis says) became known as Nubs.
Dennis fed Nubs scraps from his field rations, including bits of ham and frosted strawberry Pop Tarts. "I didn't think he'd eat the Pop Tart, but he did," says Dennis.
At night, Nubs accompanied the men on night patrols. "I'd get up in the middle of the night to walk the perimeter with my weapon and Nubs would get up and walk next to me like he was doing guard duty," says Dennis.
The next day, Dennis said goodbye to Nubs, but he didn't forget about the dog. He began mentioning Nubs in emails he wrote to friends and family back home. "I found a dog in the desert," Dennis wrote in an email in October 2007. "I call him Nubs. We clicked right away. He flips on his back and makes me rub his stomach."
"Every couple of weeks, we'd go back to the border fort and I'd see Nubs every time," says Dennis. "Each time, he followed us around a little more." And every time the men rumbled away in their Humvees, Nubs would run after them. "We're going forty miles an hour and he'd be right next to the Humvee," says Dennis. "He's a crazy fast dog. Eventually, he'd wear out, fall behind and disappear in the dust."
On one trip to the border fort in December 2007, Dennis found Nubs was badly wounded in his left side where he'd been stabbed with a screwdriver. "The wound was infected and full of pus," Dennis recalls. "We pulled out our battle kits and poured antiseptic on his wound and force fed him some antibiotics wrapped in peanut butter." That night, Nubs was in so much pain that he refused food and water and slept standing up because he couldn't lay down. Dennis and his team left again the next day, but Dennis thought about Nubs the entire time, hoping the dog was still alive.
"There he was, all beaten and chewed up," says Dennis. "I knew immediately that Nubs had crossed through several dog territories and fought and ran, and fought and ran," says Dennis. The dog jumped on Dennis, licking his face.
Most of the 80 men at the camp welcomed Nubs, even building him a doghouse. But a couple of soldiers complained, leading Dennis' superiors to order him to get rid of the dog. With his hand forced, Dennis decided that the only thing to do was bring Nubs to America. He began coordinating Nubs' rescue effort. Friends and family in the States helped, raising the $5,000 it would cost to transport Nubs overseas.
Finally, it was all arranged. Nubs was handed over to volunteers in Jordan, who looked after the dog and sent him onto to Chicago, then San Diego, where Dennis' friends waited to pick him up. Nubs lived with Dennis' friends and began getting trained by local dog trainer Graham Bloem of the Snug Pet Resort. "I focused on basic obedience and socializing him with dogs, people and the environment," says Bloem.
A month later, Dennis finished his deployment in Iraq and returned home to San Diego, where he immediately boarded a bus to Camp Pendleton to be reunited with Nubs. "I was worried he wouldn't remember me," says Dennis. But he needn't have worried. "Nubs went crazy," recalls Dennis. "He was jumping up on me, licking my head."
Dennis' experience with Nubs led to a children's picture book, called "Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine & a Miracle," published by Little, Brown for Young Readers. They have appeared on the Today Show and will be appearing on The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien on Monday.
Was it destiny that Dennis met Nubs and brought him to America? "I don't know about that," says Dennis. "It's been a strange phenomenon. It's been a blessing. I get drawings mailed to me that children have drawn of Nubs with his ears cut off. It makes me laugh."