When a servicemember is killed in action, they leave behind an emptiness for family and friends.
Eleven years ago, Orange Grove native Colton Rusk was killed serving his country in Afghanistan. He was only 20 years old. He dedicated his life to serving his country and made the ultimate sacrifice for it.
Colton was the all-American boy. The second of three brothers, he was popular among his peers at Orange Grove High School; he was chosen Homecoming and Prom King his senior year. His family thought he'd go into firefighting, like his father, but Colton had other ideas.
When he was 17, he signed up for the U.S. Marine Corps through the Delayed Entry Program. His childhood friend, Justin Rokohl, had already joined the military and was serving a tour in Afghanistan after a previous tour in Iraq.
“Within days of (Colton) signing, his best friend — like a brother — was actually blown up by an IED in Afghanistan,” said Kathy Rusk, Colton’s mother.
Rokhol survived the attack, but lost both his legs. Colton spent considerable time with Rokohl as he recovered. That experience only strengthened his resolve to serve.
“For me that, he's — he's my hero,” Kathy said.
After boot camp, Colton had another surprise. He was becoming a dog handler, tasked with finding IEDs. That's when he met Eli, with whom he forged an instant bond.
“He was so happy and excited, and then the day came that he told us he was being deployed,” Kathy said.
Colton was going to Afghanistan. His unit deployed September 21, 2010, his 20th birthday.
Kathy and Colton’s father, Darrell, were there to see him off.
“At the time I didn't think it would be the last time we ever hugged him or touched him,” said Kathy, who tried to put on a brave face as her son left.
Within days, however, the phone started ringing.
“We started getting the phone calls, the recordings, that there had been casualties,” she said. “Then you get the phone call, and you hear his voice, and you're like 'he's OK.' ”
On Dec. 6, the phone rang. It was the call every military parent dreads.
“He said 'We need you to come home,' and I didn't want to go home,” Kathy recalled. “I didn't want to go home because I knew.”
“You read about stuff like that,” added Darrell. “Two first sergeants and a chaplain at the gate — you already know what's going on.”
Colton had been killed by an IED, but Eli was unharmed. At Colton’s funeral, another dog handler suggested the Rusks adopt their son’s dog,
They were initially hesitant.
“All we could say was that he needed to stay with the guys and do what he was trained for to protect them,” Kathy said.
“He wouldn't work no more,” explained Darrell.
With the help of then Gov. Rick Perry, Eli was given to the Rusks in February 2011.
Almost immediately, the bond shared by Colton and Eli extended to Colton’s family, and he's been with the Rusks ever since.
“He was our comfort in those dark, dark days,” Kathy said. “He'll never replace Colton, but we had a piece of what Colton loved.”
Colton Rusk’s final resting place is only a few minutes drive from the family’s Orange Grove home. It’s easy to spot the plot, as it’s decorated with an American flag and a decorative headstone. Kathy and Darrell visit regularly, often bringing Eli, but not as much as they used to.
Now 15, Eli is starting to show signs of age. The Rusks are heartbroken seeing him in decline, but know that Eli is instrumental in telling Colton’s story so that it's never forgotten
“That’s my biggest fear, that Colton is going to be forgotten,” Kathy said. “We got to share his story so much, he'll never be forgotten.”
Colton's legacy also lives on through the kids in Orange Grove who continue to look up to him. So far, his family has awarded more than $100,000 in scholarships to Orange Grove High School students in Colton's name, including every senior in the class of 2016, when his youngest brother Brady graduated.
A fitting legacy for someone who did so much in a short time.