ST. PETE BEACH — Maj. Brian Dennis and his mom are on the phone.
A local morning show wants to interview Dennis at 7:30 this morning. A children's book author asks to speak with him. He spent the morning with TV crews that filmed his dog's first splash in the Gulf of Mexico.
Nubs, the 2-year-old Iraqi mutt with cut-off ears and national fame, dozes in the St. Pete Beach living room of Marsha Cargo, Dennis' mom. Laying on the carpet, he closes his eyes, catlike.
They went on Ellen DeGeneres' show and met Hillary Clinton. Dennis got a discount on a rental car when employees found out who it was for. Old friends are calling to tell him they saw him on TV.
Dennis slowly warmed to the media attention. At first, he wanted to keep the story under the radar. Now he understands.
Dennis has lost five close friends in Iraq. In 2005, his roommate and his boss, both fathers, died in a flying collision. He says he's seen terrible things, but he tries to leave them behind.
"Every day is immersed in bad news," he said. "It's something nice from a part of the world that there's not a lot of nice stuff coming out of."
The Marine glances at Nubs as he tells the story of how they met.
Dennis, 36, is a bachelor who gave up the Florida lifestyle to fly fighter planes. In 1991, he joined the Marines, looking for something more adventurous than St. Petersburg College.
He went from Special Forces to flight school. Now he's an F/A-18 fighter pilot. His first deployment was to Bosnia. He's been to Iraq twice and goes again early next year. He laments that he's never been to Afghanistan.
Nubs is a sheepish alpha mutt who dominated bigger dogs, hunted rodents and scavenged through trash around ruins in Iraq. He has sad brown eyes and the dark coloring of a German shepherd around his face.
In the fall, Dennis and his team were patrolling the Iraqi border near Syria. Every week or so, they would drive about 70 miles to the ruins where Nubs and his pack lived.
When the Humvees arrived, Nubs dined on the soldiers' MREs (meals ready to eat) and strawberry Pop-Tarts. At first, he seemed like all the other stray dogs that scavenged and fought in Iraq.
On one of the visits, Nubs looked terrible and could hardly walk. He had been stabbed with a screwdriver. They cleaned the wound, dressed it and kept an eye on him through the frigid night. He improved and tried to chase down their Humvee when they left.
Then the dog appeared at their combat outpost. He had tracked the men about 70 miles across the desert.
Dennis figured he bonded after the Marines cared for him. In Iraq, killing is common. Iraqis often treat dogs as disease-ridden pests. Someone cut Nubs' ears off, supposedly to make him tougher and more alert.
"We could have been the first living beings who were ever kind to him," Dennis said.
But the Marines had a problem. They weren't allowed to keep pets in war zones. Dennis knew he had to take him home to his station near San Diego. He filled out the paperwork and dropped him off at the Jordanian border. The dog flew from Amman, where he was treated by the king's veterinarian, to Chicago to San Diego.
This week, he's visiting the St. Petersburg area, where Dennis' mom still lives.
Dennis likes to tease him about his nubby ears.
Why don't you wear those sunglasses I got you? Oh, they fall off because you don't have ears.
And with Nubs' newfound fame, Dennis has an unusual threat when the dog doesn't obey. He jokes that he'll sell him on eBay.
Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727) 892-2374 or [email protected]