Army Spc. Justin Rollins; Inset: Hero the dog
Courtesy Animal Planet
11/11/2011 at 10:00 AM EST
It's been four years since Army Spc. Justin A. Rollins
died, but his mother looks into his eyes every day.
Rollins, an abiding animal lover, was 22 years old when he was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq. The day before he died, he joined fellow soldiers in the 82nd Airborne and rescued a litter of puppies. That night, he told girlfriend Brittney Murray, to whom he had planned to propose, about the dogs he had met.
After Rollins's family received word of his death, they were shown photos of the dog rescue. They saw that their fallen son had smiled as he cradled puppies in his hands and had known a moment of joy just before the end. Murray, along with Rollins's parents, Rhonda and Skip, felt an imperative: They had to bring one of those dogs home.
Four years later, that dog, white with brown patches and downward-sloping eyes, has a home in New Hampshire, a name, Hero, and a spoiled-rotten lifestyle. Moreover, Hero has become a TV star: She and her family are the subjects of Saved
, Animal Planet's new six-part series about the healing power of animals, premiering next week.
"Hero slept in Justin's bed with me the first night she was home, and we did that for months," Murray told PEOPLE. "It eased the pain. Animals do that."
For Rhonda, Hero brings back memories of Rollins. "He held her, and now I get to hold her," she said. "When I look at her, she reminds me of the son that I lost." Rhonda even sometimes stares at Hero and asks, "Just – are you in there?"
On Thursday, for the first time since Hero arrived in the U.S., she visited Rollins's grave at Arlington National Cemetery. It would have been his 27th birthday.
The timing of the visit was made even more poignant by the fact that Kayla, the family's 13-year-old pit bull that Rollins adored, had died three weeks beforehand. Skip – "tough, biker-guy" Skip – carried Kayla's ashes to his son's grave and, with tears in his eyes, scattered them lovingly in the cold November rain.
With Hero standing close by, Skip was again reminded of his son. "Justin would never talk about the lives he took, but he would talk about the lives he saved all day long," he said. "This dog, to us, is the last life that he ever saved. It's our last living link to him that we have. She's incredibly important to the family."
Saved premieres on Animal Planet on Monday, Nov. 14, at 8 p.m. ET/PT.