Marine Hero Honored
LONDON — Move over Lassie, there's a new hero pooch in town.
Meet Lucca, a retired U.S. Marine Corps dog who lost one of her legs while hunting for homemade bombs in Afghanistan.
More than four years after she was reduced to three paws, Lucca was awarded a top military medal for the 400 missions she completed during her service.
The People's Dispensary for Sick Animals — a British charity known as the PDSA — honored Lucca with its Dickin Medal during a ceremony at London's Wellington Barracks on Tuesday.
The PDSA says the award is "the highest award any animal in the world can achieve while serving in military conflict" and has given it out just 66 times since 1943.
The charity calls it "the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross," referring to the highest military decoration awarded by a British monarch. However, the Victoria Cross Trust has previously opposed the comparison.
Tuesday's ceremony was also attended by the dog's owner, Gunnery Sergeant Christopher Willingham, who lives with Lucca in California.
"Lucca is very intelligent, loyal and had an amazing drive for work as a search dog," Willingham said in a statement. "She is the only reason I made it home to my family and I am fortunate to have served with her."
Lucca completed more than 400 missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, sniffing out explosives and protecting "the lives of thousands of allied troops," according to the charity. There were no human casualties during any of her patrols.
She was injured while on patrol with her other handler, Cpl. Juan Rodriguez, in Afghanistan's Helmand province in March 2012.
"The explosion was huge and I immediately feared the worst for Lucca," Rodriguez said in the PDSA's statement. "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."
Lucca was evacuated to Germany and then to California's Camp Pendleton. Rodriguez stayed near her through each stage of recovery — even choosing to sleep side-by-side some nights.