A retired US Marine Corps dog who protected the lives of allied troops in Iraq and Afghanistan has been honoured with the PDSA Dickin Medal – the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross.
The 12-year-old German Shepherd who lost a leg while on duty, successfully completed over 400 separate missions during six years of active service. Her heroic actions were recognised by UK veterinary charity, PDSA, at a ceremony at Wellington Barracks, London on the 5th April 2016.
Lucca’s skills as a search and explosives dog protected the lives of thousands of allied troops, according to the U.S. Marines. Her success was such that there were no human casualties during any of her patrols.
On her final patrol, on 23 March 2012, Lucca discovered a 30lb improvised explosive device (IED) and as she searched for additional IEDs, a second device detonated. She instantly lost her front left leg and suffered severe burns to her chest. Corporal (Cpl) Juan Rodriguez, her handler on the mission, administered life-saving first aid to Lucca.
Cpl Rodriguez, said: “The explosion was huge and I immediately feared the worst for Lucca. I ran to her and saw her struggling to get up. I picked her up and ran to the shelter of a nearby tree line; applied a tourniquet to her injured leg and called the medics to collect us. I stayed with her constantly throughout her operation and her recovery. She had saved my life on so many occasions – I had to make sure that I was there for her when she needed me.”
Miraculously, none of the soldiers in the patrol were injured in the blast which injured Lucca.
Lucca was evacuated from Afghanistan to Germany and then to Marine Corps Base, Camp Pendleton, California, to complete her recovery. Cpl Rodriguez stayed at her side throughout each move – even choosing to sleep next to Lucca as she recovered.
Within ten days of her injury, Lucca was up and walking.
Cpl Rodriguez continues: “Through all of her treatment and despite the pain she was in, her temperament never changed. Her fighting spirit was plain to see and I was so proud of how quickly she recovered.”
While she was rehabilitating, her adoption paperwork was submitted to retire her officially from active service and live with Chris Willingham and his family in California.
Talking about the well-deserved award Gunnery Sergeant Chris Willingham, said: “Lucca is very intelligent, loyal and had an amazing drive for work as a search dog. She is the only reason I made it home to my family and I am fortunate to have served with her. In addition to her incredible detection capabilities, Lucca was instrumental in increasing morale for the troops we supported. In between missions, I took the searching harness off and let her play and interact with the troops. Due to her personality, demeanor and proficiency as a search dog, Lucca made friends wherever she went. Today, I do my best to keep her spoiled in her well-deserved retirement.”
“Even when Lucca was injured, her good temperament and gentle nature never faltered. She has become an inspiration to everyone she meets and I am so very proud to see her decorated with this prestigious award.”
Lucca’s award will bring the total number of PDSA Dickin Medals awarded to animals in military conflict to 66. Since the introduction of the Medal by PDSA founder Maria Dickin, CBE, in 1943 it has been awarded to 30 dogs (including Lucca), 32 World War Two messenger pigeons, three horses and one cat.