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Canine war hero shows true meaning of honor

July 28, 2012

By MATT CRANE
sdnlife@bellsouth.net

Dogs have longed been described as man’s best friend, but for Marines fighting in Afghanistan, one special dog proved to be their savior.

When she was only two years old, Lucca K458 joined the Marine Corps on April 23, 2006 as a specialized search dog.

Her first handler, GySgt. Christopher Willingham, is the husband of Starkville native Jill Willingham and said he was fortunate enough to train his friend and battle companion.

“She is trained to search roadways, open areas, buildings and vehicles for explosives, weapons and ammunition,” Chris Willingham said. “During our five years as a team, we spent 20 months overseas including to combat deployments to Iraq where she saved my life on several occasions by locating IEDs. She was also instrumental in the arrest of five insurgents.”

When Willingham was stationed to Embassy duty, he said he was able to pick the handler who would take over with Lucca on the field.

“From the beginning, there was only one choice for me, Corporal Marine Juan Rodriguez,” he said. “His performance in combat far exceeded my expectations. Plus, his personality was a great match for Lucca.”

Willingham said Cpl. Rodriguez and Lucca were deployed to Afghanistan in November 2011.

On March 23, 2012, however, the unthinkable happened.

Willingham said as Cpl. Rodriguez and Lucca were walking point, Lucca detected her fourth IED during the operation, but a second device exploded leaving Lucca badly burned with an injured leg that would later be amputated.

“As soon as the blast occurred, she started running back towards Cpl. Rodriguez,” he said. “(He) met her halfway and immediately applied a tourniquet and first aid, which saved her life. Besides Lucca, no other Marine was injured during the patrol.”

Willingham said his first concern was for Cpl. Rodriguez and the safety of the other Marines.

“I felt like it was important for him to know I was proud of him and his heroic actions,” he said. “Both of their actions that day proved they are true heroes.”

After being airlifted to Germany and later to Camp Pendleton in California, Willingham said Lucca did wonderfully during recovery, with no shrapnel or internal damage detected.

“Her hearing, her eyes and most importantly her personality were not affected,” he said.

Willingham filed for adoption of Lucca once she was medically cleared for retirement, and flew her back to Finland where he and his family is stationed.

“It’s hard to describe the feeling of being reunited with a dog that has saved your life on more than one occasion,” he said. “I knelt down and called her name as she approached me. She realized who had just called her name, and she ran up to me and began licking my face and pawing at me in excitement.

Willingham said it was important for him that Cpl. Rodriguez escort Lucca on her flight to Finland and bring her to retirement.

“I wanted to personally thank him for saving her life,” he said.

With retirement ahead of her, Willingham said Lucca has become quite the celebrity due to the considerable international coverage her bravery has garnered.

“The day after she arrived we took her for a walk and were approached by people asking, ‘Is that Hero Dog,’” he said. “She has saved countless lives and is a true hero. I feel very fortunate to have been her handler and had her by my side.”

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