It may seem inconspicuous at first, the display case near the entrance of the Starkville Public Library. Take time to pause there, though, and meet Lucca, a remarkable dog — a military hero that served three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, leading more than 400 patrols as she searched for explosives, targets and ammunition. No soldier was ever injured on her patrol watch. That includes her original handler, now-Master Sgt. Chris Willingham of the United States Marine Corps. Patsy Stuart of Starkville is his mother-in-law, grateful to Lucca for protecting Willingham on deployment. As Veterans Day approached, she felt compelled to pay tribute to the very special four-legged vet by putting up the display.
“This was something I wanted to do for Lucca. I’m just grateful to her. I had such an emotional attachment to her. I feel strongly that she was a really big factor in Chris coming home safely,” said Stuart, taking photos and magazines about Lucca from a briefcase at the library. She has a wealth of memorabilia chronicling the extraordinary partnership the specialized search dog shared with Willingham, who grew up near Northport, Alabama, and later, her second handler Cpl. Juan Rodriguez.
In Lucca’s six years in the Marine Corps, she served loyally. After losing a leg to an IED blast in 2012, she was adopted by Willingham and was a frequent visitor to Starkville and the Northport area with Willingham, his wife, Jill, and their two children, Claire and Michael.
In retirement, the dog with three legs became a well-known ambassador, bringing awareness to the important service of military working dogs, which the United States has used since World War II.
Even after Lucca’s passing in January of this year, her story is still touching lives and inspiring others.
Lucca K458, a German Shepherd/Belgian Malinois cross, was born in the Netherlands and trained in Israel with an American Team. She was inducted into the Marine Corps in April 2006, at the age of 2. She and Willingham were teamed up that same month. She belonged to an elite group of canines trained to work off-leash at long distances from her handler to sniff out deadly explosives. Lucca served alongside Special Forces and regular infantry, often sought-after by platoons that requested her by name.
“I had her from the beginning, trained her, deployed with her,” Willingham told The Dispatch via phone from North Carolina, where he is currently posted. While serving together through two combat tours, he and Lucca were together 24/7.
“We were just on the same wavelength,” Willingham said. “She was an incredible, incredible dog. I’ve had hundreds of dogs on leash, but there was just something about her — her personality, her intelligence, her expression. You could tell she was a very smart dog, very in tune with what’s going on.”
In addition to serving as a force protection measure, Lucca fulfilled a secondary and unofficial mission on deployments — boosting morale.
“Between missions, I was able to take Lucca’s searching harness off and let her interact with the troops we were supporting. It helped take the troops’ minds off our current situation, and it really brought a piece of home to a lot of the soldiers and marines.”
Many of the troops they supported didn’t know Willingham’s name — he was often referred to as “the dog guy.” “But everyone knew Lucca’s name. I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said.
A change of duties for Willingham meant he had to leave his one-on-one partnership with Lucca. He had the opportunity, however, to hand-pick his successor. He didn’t have to think long.
“Our platoon consisted of numerous military working dog handlers, but out of the many outstanding handlers, there was one that stood out to me, Cpl. Juan Rodriguez,” Willingham shared.
It was Rodriguez who was patrolling in a dry farm field in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand River Valley with Lucca in March 2012 when the dog indicated on an IED. But as she began searching the surrounding area, a second IED detonated. When debris and smoke cleared, Rodriguez, who was safe, rushed to Lucca, who had severe damage to her left front leg.
Willingham remembers how he heard about Lucca’s injury, which necessitated amputation of the leg.
“I was working at the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki, Finland, when I heard. I had just finished dinner with my wife; it was our wedding anniversary. A buddy of mine was over there, and he said I needed to call as soon as I could, that Lucca was injured. I went back to the embassy and was able to talk to them right away.”
Rodriguez stayed by Lucca’s side, even sleeping in her large crate, keeping Willingham updated on all developments.
Lucca’s story of service, the blast and her recovery are detailed in the book “Top Dog: The Story of Marine Hero Lucca” (New American Library, 2015), by New York Times bestselling author Maria Goodavage.
Remarks in the book include this from Marine Gen. James Mattis (Ret.): “I have read nothing that so adroitly weaves together the relationship between our young warriors and man’s best friend, from Iraq to Afghanistan and then coming home in body, mind and spirit.”
Lucca’s injury led to her military retirement in July of 2012. She was coming home to reunite with Willingham.
“The plan was always for me to adopt her and give her a good home for the rest of her life after her service; the injury just sped that up,” he said.
In retirement, Lucca acquired celebrity status, Stuart said. Not only have the dog’s intelligence and courage been written about in Goodavage’s book, but in numerous other articles and publications. She and Willingham appeared on magazine covers, rode in the Tournament of Roses Parade, visited wounded warriors and schools and attended major functions.
In April 2016, the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, a veterinary charity in the United Kingdom, awarded Lucca the Dickin Medal, considered the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross. It was the first time a U.S. Marine Corps dog was given the honor.
Amy Dickin, the dispensary’s spokesperson, said the award to Lucca garnered more public attention than any other Dickin medal honoree in the program’s 73-year history.
Lucca enjoyed a full and happy retirement with the Willinghams. But age and illness catch up even with heroes. Just a few weeks shy of Lucca’s 14th birthday, the decision had to be made in January to ensure she didn’t suffer needlessly. Willingham asked Rodriguez to come to North Carolina.
“For the last four days, we kept her spoiled up until the end,” Willingham said. “On her last day, we took her to the beach one more time; she loved going to the beach. We got her a big ice cream cone, just hanging out with her, looking at pictures of her deployments on a laptop. We were both standing by her side when she took her last breath.”
Jill Willingham said, “She was such a good dog. I felt she brought Chris safely home to us. There was a debt of gratitude I could never repay, but we were able love on her, spoil her, give her almost five years of retirement just being a pet, just being a dog.”
“Lucca helped me through some of my toughest times,” Chris Willingham said. “We celebrated the highest of highs together, and she helped me endure some of my toughest times in deployment.”
(Editor’s note: Patsy Stuart’s Lucca display will remain at the Starkville Public Library through December.)
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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