CAMP PENDLETON -- Gunnery Sgt. Chris Willingham was in Finland when he got the news that the dog he had trained and loved for years had stepped on a bomb in Afghanistan and lost her left front leg in the blast.
Lucca, an 8-year-old German shepherd was deployed on a mission with her new handler, Cpl. Juan Rodriguez, and the two were leading a U.S. Army Special Forces patrol in the Helmand Province in March 2012.
Lucca alerted Rodriguez to one bomb and ran to find others. That's when a second bomb went off, blasting the dog into the air. Severely injured, Lucca made a valiant attempt to get back to Rodriguez.
It was the end of a sterling military career for Lucca, one of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Camp Pendleton War Dogs. Later in the year, Rodriguez escorted Lucca on a plane to Helsinki, where Willingham was on embassy duty and waiting to get his dog back.
Four years later, on April 5, Willingham was there when when Lucca was awarded the Dickin Medal, considered "the animal equivalent of the United Kingdom's Victoria Cross" and the highest honor an animal can receive for military service. The medal was presented at Wellington Barracks near Buckingham Palace.
The organization cited Lucca for her record of 400 successful missions protecting the lives of thousands of troops during her six years of service. No soldiers or Marines died on her patrols.
"Lucca's conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty makes her a hugely deserving recipient of the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals Dickin Medal," said the charity'' director general, Jan McLoughlin, who presented the medal. "Her ability and determination to seek out arms and explosives preserved human life amid some of the world's fiercest military conflicts."
Briefly back at Camp Pendleton after the ceremony before deploying again to the Middle East, Willingham sat in his office at the War Dog kennels and talked about Lucca's service and how the recognition and publicity have brought greater understanding of the importance of military dogs.
"There have been countless lives saved because of them," said Willingham, 36, who has served in the Marine Corps for 18 years. "People have tried to replicate their work with technology but at the end of the day, you won't beat a well-trained dog team."
Military officials say dogs are the best line of defense for Coalition Forces in the Middle East fighting insurgents with improvised explosive devices.
Making a hero dog team
Lucca and Willingham became a team on April 23, 2006, when the 2-year-old became part of the 1st Marine's military working dog platoon. Like all dogs in the Department of Defense, Lucca was trained at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.
"She had the most expression in her face I've ever seen," Willingham recalled. "You could see her eyebrows move. You could see her processing information. In 10 years, I think she's barked maybe 10 times. She's a professional."
Willingham worked on bonding. He took long walks, worked obedience, groomed her and played with her. The Kong toy was her paycheck, he said.
"Once our bond started, we were tough to beat," he said.
Lucca was trained to detect arms, ammunition, and explosives. She worked off-leash with voice and directional commands.
Like the dogs, handlers must be highly qualified. All are military police first and volunteer for the job. Marines are selected for their solid judgment, an ability to work independently and solid communication.
Most military dogs are are German shepherds, Belgian Malanois and labradors. They are trained in patrol, drug detection, as combat trackers and, like Lucca, as specialized search dogs.
Training pays off
The two deployed to Iraq for the first time on April 23, 2007 and were attached to an Army patrol. It was during the march on Baghdad in the deadliest year for Marines.
Their mission was to find and clear explosives along the Tigris River, south of Baghdad.
"She searched and gave signs there was an IED," Willingham said. "It was extremely validating to think of all of the hours of training and to think she found the IED where the Army patrol was heading through."
Then just down the road, Lucca indicated another find. This time it was a car rigged with explosives.
"When you take a dog into combat deployment, you find the depth of the bond because your life is in their abilities and their life is in your communication," he said.
Separation and reunion
Despite being separated from Lucca in 2012 when he was sent to Finland, Willingham's thoughts never left his dog.
He spoke to Rodriguez shortly after the blast and thanked him for saving Lucca.
Rodriguez recalled this week that after the second bomb went off, he heard Lucca scream. He saw her fighting to get up through the smoke and ran to her along the path she had cleared.
"Even though you've trained, when the moment happens it takes a different toll on you," he said. "I grabbed her and put the tourniquet on and then carried her back to a safe zone in the tree line."
Lucca was flown to the Kandahar Province for treatment by Army veterinarians, who removed her leg. She was evacuated and sent to Camp Pendleton. Within 10 days of her injury, Lucca was up and walking as a tripod.
"The best thing is Lucca still had the same spirit," Willingham said.
Rodriguez stayed with her through her surgery and recovery at Camp Pendleton. But he knew Willingham had planned to adopt Lucca when she retired.
So the two made plans for Lucca to join her former handler in Finland. Even the U.S. Ambassador there helped arrange her transport.
In what became an international media event, Rodriguez and Lucca flew out of Chicago's O'Hare Airport at specially selected Gate K9 on American Airlines.
"It was our final mission," Rodriguez said. "It was bittersweet. But it was genuine from the heart that I was able to bring Lucca to Chris. They had been waiting a long time. It was never a doubt in my mind, she'd be with Chris."
Willingham, his wife, and two young children were waiting at the airport in Helsinki.
Willingham was nervous. What if Lucca didn't recognize him?
He got down on one knee to be at her eye level.
"I could see them come out," he recalled. "I called her name and she just lost her mind and came running to me. She jumped on me and licked my face."
Lucca lives with the Willinghams in Vista. She's adjusted to retirement and makes appearances at local schools and community events. She also mentors the family's golden retriever pup.
She's watching over the family now that Willingham has deployed for at least seven months to the Middle East.
While Willingham and others at Camp Pendleton are extremely proud of Lucca's medal, it won't stay there. It will be placed in the Military War Dog display at the Marine Corps Museum at Quantico, Va.
"This platoon has a great legacy behind it," he said. "Lucca is not above it. She is just part of the legacy of all the military working dog programs."
Contact the writer: 714-796-2254 or email@example.com or Twitter:@lagunaini ___
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