Hawkeye, a Labrador retriever, rests by the casket of his owner, SEAL Jon Tumilson, during Tumilson's memorial service in Rockford, Iowa, on Aug. 19. Tumilson was one of 30 U.S. troops killed when their helicopter crashed in Afghanistan on Aug. 6. (Lisa Pembleton / Getty Images)
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DES MOINES, Iowa — The legend of Navy SEAL Jon Tumilson and his faithful Labrador retriever, Hawkeye, continues to grow.
A now-famous photograph of Hawkeye guarding Tumilson’s flag-draped coffin in 2011 inspired this week’s episode of the hit CBS television series “NCIS,” according to one of its executive producers.
“It all started with a photograph,” co-executive producer Scott Williams wrote on the show’s blog. The inspired result: Tuesday’s episode, “Seek,” the night’s top-rated show.
“It served as yet another stark reminder of the sacrifices made by our military men and women and their families (pets included),” Williams wrote. “It also set the wheels in motion for the (March 19) episode.”
Jon Tumilson, 35, who was born in Osage, Iowa, and grew up in Rockford, Iowa, died in Afghanistan in August 2011 when the Chinook helicopter carrying him and 29 others was shot down.
His cherished black Lab, Hawkeye, led Tumilson’s family into the funeral.
What happened next resulted in a photo that became an Internet sensation.
When Hawkeye’s new owner, close family friend Scott Nichols, went to the front to speak, Hawkeye came with him. The dog soon walked to Tumilson’s flag-draped coffin, dropped to the floor, and stayed there, as if on guard.
Tumilson’s cousin, Lisa Pembleton, captured the moment on behalf of 1,500 mourners at Rudd-Rockford-Marble Rock gym in Rockford.
The image prompted people around the world to comment on its depiction of faithfulness, companionship, bravery and duty.
Now, “NCIS,” which follows special agents of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, has joined the legions inspired by the photo.
This week’s episode opened with a soldier and a mine-sniffing dog in Afghanistan who watch as a boy’s soccer ball rolls onto a live mine, which explodes.
Just after the soldier and dog lead the boy to safety, a sniper shoots the soldier. The dog lies at the side of his fallen master.
Later, the lead character, special agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, says of the episode’s canine star, Dexter, “He’s not a dog. He’s a Marine.”
Many of the nearly 1,000 people who had commented on the producer’s blog post by Friday evening said the show, which incorporates a scene reminiscent of Tumilson’s funeral, brought them to tears.
The episode was dedicated to “military working dogs and their brave handlers everywhere,” Williams wrote.
The show won the ratings competition in its time slot, pulling in 19.8 million viewers, more than twice the No. 2 program, “Splash,” on ABC, and more than any prime-time show that night, according to the Nielsen Co. ratings.
Tumilson’s family hopes veteran actor Mark Harmon, who plays Gibbs, and others in the “NCIS” cast will help dedicate a statue of Tumilson and Hawkeye at Fossil and Prairie Park in Rockford this summer.
“We will be unveiling a life-size bronze statue of Jon and Hawkeye this summer in his hometown, and would like to personally invite Mark, and any of your cast members, to come and celebrate that special event with us,” Tumilson’s brother-in-law, Scott McMeekan, wrote on the “NCIS” blog.
Neither members of Tumilson’s family nor representatives of CBS could be reached for comment.