MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. --
Since its creation in 1775, the Marine Corps has recognized countless heroes for their selflessness, dedication and outstanding leadership. This recognition draws attention to their excellent example and encourages others to learn from them. Although it is not Marine Corps specific, the Dickin Medal serves the same purpose: to bring much deserved recognition to service members who have set an extraordinary example. It just happens to be reserved for non-human service members.
Lucca, a retired Marine Corps military working dog, has been selected as the first United States military working dog to receive this prestigious European award.
The Dickin Medal was established in 1943 by the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, a British veterinary charity, to acknowledge outstanding acts of bravery or devotion to duty by animals serving with the armed forces or civil defense. Since its inception, the medal has been awarded to fewer than 70 animals including horses, pigeons, and dogs.
Lucca, a half German Shephard and half Belgian Malinois explosives detection dog, was selected to receive the award for her actions while serving in combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to Gunnery Sgt. Chris Willingham, Lucca’s first handler and now adoptive owner, in March of 2012 Lucca and her handler at the time, Cpl. Juan Rodriguez, were leading a patrol in Afghanistan. Lucca was detached from her leash and sent ahead of the Marines to search for explosives with Rodriguez directing from afar. She located one improvised explosive device, but when they began searching for a second, an undetected explosive detonated.
Willingham, a Tuscaloosa, Alabama, native, explained that the explosion injured her front left leg and burned her upper torso. Rodriguez ran past the known IED, applied a tourniquet, and carried Lucca back to the safety of the nearby tree line.
As they would for any other injured Marine, they called for an emergency medical evacuation and Lucca was on her way to advanced medical care in only 10 minutes. The injuries led to the amputation of Lucca’s left front leg, but according to Willingham she has no permanent eye or ear damage.
“The best part is that she has the same personality that she had beforehand,” said Willingham. “For her to be exposed to an IED, to take the injury she suffered, and to still come back with the same personality really speaks to her resiliency, strength and character.”
Lucca had already completed two tours in Iraq with Willingham after the two were paired together in April 2006. Willingham said that having her there was like having a piece of home.
“In between missions I could take the harness off and she could just be a dog,” said Willingham. “But when I put that search harness on she knew it was time to go to work. It was amazing to see that transition where she would just flip the switch.”
Lucca and Willingham spent years building the relationship that he said is the true foundation of dog training. By the end of her six-year career, Lucca led approximately 400 patrols and identified nearly 40 IEDs saving countless lives.
“There are a lot of people who didn’t make it home, but thanks to Lucca I was able to get back to my family,” said Willingham. “I owe her everything.”
Of all the patrols Lucca led throughout her service, not a single Marine was injured while following her. Even on the mission that led to her early retirement, Lucca was the only one hurt.
With the threats of explosives behind her, the 12-year-old war hero has settled into retirement at the home of her beloved handler.
“She loves the dog beaches and the parks, traded combat patrols for family walks, and she’s a wonderful house pet now,” said Willingham. “Having the dog that I’d been through so much with and who saved my life, and being able to spoil her in her retirement and make sure she gets everything that she deserves, has been a task I’ve been happy to accomplish.”
Lucca and Willingham are scheduled to visit the United Kingdom later this year to receive the Dickin Medal and show a proud example of what military working dogs and United States military service members have to offer.