SAVANNAH, Ga. - Marine Cpl. Dustin Jerome Lee and his German shepherd, Lex, scoured Iraq for roadside bombs together, slept next to each other and even posed in Santa hats for a holiday photo.

When a mortar attack killed Lee, 20, in Fallujah a few months later, Lex, whimpering from his own injuries, had to be pulled away, Lee's father was told.

That strong bond compelled the slain Marine's family to adopt 8-year-old Lex even though the military said he still had two years of service.

The family lobbied the military for months, launched an Internet petition and enlisted the aid of a North Carolina congressman who took their case straight to the Marine Corps' top general.

Yesterday, the Marine Corps finally announced Lex could go home to Lee's family.

It is the first time the military has granted a dog early retirement to be adopted by someone other than a former handler.

"We knew that's what Dustin would have wanted out of this," said Jerome Lee, the slain Marine's father.

"He knew that we would take care of Lex and love him, just like our own."

Lee's family from Quitman, Miss., is to pick up Lex from the Albany, Ga., base Dec. 21, exactly nine months after the fatal attack.

Though some shrapnel remains lodged in his back, Lex has otherwise recovered from his wounds and has been serving alongside military policemen at the Albany base since July.*