A military dog who lost a leg while on duty in Afghanistan has been awarded the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross for her bravery.
12-year-old Lucca had successfully completed more than 400 missions before she retired after six years of active service.
The US Marine Corps dog was honoured with the PDSA Dickin Medal by the UK’s leading veterinary charity at a ceremony in London this week.
The famous medal was instituted by PDSA’s founder, Maria Dickin, CBE, in 1943.
It is the highest award any animal in the world can achieve while serving in military conflict. Lucca’s is the 66th PDSA Dickin Medal to be awarded and she is the first US Marine Corps dog to receive the esteemed honour.
Lucca’s skills as a search and explosives dog protected the lives of thousands of allied troops, according to the US Marines. She was so successful that there were no human casualties during any of her patrols.
On her final patrol, on 23 March 2012, Lucca discovered a 30lb 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 Juan Rodriguez, her handler on the mission, administered life-saving first aid to Lucca before she was evacuated. Through all of her emergency treatment and recovery, Cpl Rodriguez never left Lucca’s side.
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 added: “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 Gunnery Sergeant (GySgt) Chris Willingham and his family in California.
After training together, Lucca and GySgt Willingham served together for two tours in Iraq. In 2007, they conducted clearing operations along the Tigris River, South of Baghdad. In 2008, they conducted counter insurgency operations around Diwaniyah. Lucca made a number of finds; including weapons caches, IEDs and bombs. Also, she was directly responsible for the apprehension of four insurgents.
Lucca’s PDSA Dickin Medal was presented by the charity’s Director General, Jan McLoughlin, who said: “Lucca’s conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty makes her a hugely deserving recipient of the PDSA Dickin Medal. Her ability and determination to seek out arms and explosives preserved human life amid some of the world’s fiercest military conflicts.
“I am thrilled that both Lucca and Gunnery Sergeant Willingham have made the journey to London to receive this very special award.”
GySgt 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.”