Lucca's Story

The holiday season is about giving and sharing.  What better way than to give the gift of life, which is what one special military dog, Lucca, did for countless people serving in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars?  The Marine Corps League in Tuscaloosa gave her a Purple Heart plaque; a two-time Purple Heart Marine recipient gave her one of his Purple Heart ribbons; the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Fairfax, Virginia gave her an honorary position; and other groups celebrated her and her service.

This is the story of two heroes, one male and one female, one four-legged, and her handler, Chris Willingham, who came to prominence in the book Top Dog, by Maria Goodavage.

Chris and Lucca first met in Israel in 2006.  He was one of four Marines sent over to participate in the elite Israeli Oketz K-9 group, from which the Marines would return with the dog they trained.  What struck him the most was the time and effort put into training both the handler and the dog.  Whereas Israel devotes about nine months to train a dog, the U.S. dogs have about half that time.  Chris considers himself one of the lucky ones, because after the training in Israel was finished, he was able to bring Lucca home to become an invaluable partner. 


Chris and Lucca in Iraq.

Chris and Lucca had such a rapport that Lucca was able to work off leash.  They used a “verbal leash,” and Lucca got to the point where every few minutes, she would look backward to confirm that Chris was there.  For him, this tacitly made sense, since she was still in eyesight, but he was able to maintain situational awareness that freed up his hands, so he could look for visual indicators.  Lucca served alongside both Special Forces and regular infantry and became so sought after that platoons frequently requested her by name.

Chris Willingham commented to American Thinker, “Military dogs have drive, loyalty, intelligence, are trainable, can handle the rigors of combat, and can take directions.  The handlers have to be independent thinkers, mature, responsible, have confidence in themselves and the dog, but are never cocky.  Being a kennel master at Pendleton, and a supervisor for all the Marines and the military dogs, including training and operational readiness, I can tell a special dog.  I personally think the best breeds for the military are the German Shepherd and the Belgian Malinois, because they are the easiest to train.  Lucca, being a mix of both these breeds, had the best of both worlds.  I know all handlers think their dogs are the best, but she is truly the best.  She is a real Marine, and we are called a team for a reason.”

Kris Knight, a fellow dog handler and a supervisor, will be retiring this month.  He is called the “dog whisperer” since he knows so much about training a dog.  He describes the relationship between Lucca and Chris as “the perfect match.  They are absolute rock stars.  Like one in a thousand, who did something no one else will be able to duplicate during my lifetime.  They had such a rapport.  Too bad she could not be cloned.  She went on over four hundred missions, and no one lost a life to an IED.”

The importance of military dogs can be exemplified in a quote from Maria’s first book, Soldier Dogs: “There is one response that the Taliban has no answer for: the soldier dogs.”  Maria strongly believes that Lucca frustrated many an insurgent bomb maker with her intelligence, calmness, and heroism, “a great force multiplier.  Lucca embodies all the best qualities of military dogs: intelligence, dedication, bravery, passion for the job, calm in the face of danger, a deep connection with her handlers, and most of all, a phenomenal nose that detected explosives better than any machine out there.”


Chris and Lucca in the U.S.

But Lucca was more than an explosive detector dog; she was also Chris’s savior.  After one of his buddies, a fellow dog handler, Kory Wiens, and his dog Cooper were killed in an explosion, Chris had survivor’s guilt.  Jill, Chris’s wife, believes that “Lucca filled in that role as man’s best friend.  At the time he was grieving over in Iraq, she provided solace and comfort.  Lucca helped him a lot when he was going through these tough times during deployment.”

Unfortunately, after ending his rotation, Chris had to find another partner for Lucca.  A lot of dog handlers with his rank of staff sergeant get to pick their replacement.  Corporal Juan "Rod" Rodriguez was chosen, since he had a good rapport with his other dogs.  Chris remembers that once Rod and Lucca became a team, he backed off, telling her, “This isn’t goodbye, Lucca.  It’s just a temporary thing.  Rod’s a great guy, and he’ll take good care of you.”  He sealed it with a hug.  However, Chris made it clear to Rod that he was adopting Lucca.  She was seven years old when Rod and she left for Afghanistan.  After their deployment was finished, Lucca would be of adoption age, so Chris made sure the papers were filled out ahead of time.

But on March 23, 2012, Lucca was taken out by an IED that mangled one of her legs.

Maria wants Americans to know that even though dogs are still labeled as equipment, they are not considered that by the team.  She points to the personnel, time, and money spent to save Lucca’s life.  While Rod applied a tourniquet to stop the bleeding, the Green Berets pulled security around them, protecting the dog team.  A Delta medic ran over and injected Lucca with morphine to relax her body.  Within ten minutes of the blast, a medevac helicopter arrived, taking Rod and Lucca to Camp Leatherneck.  They were met by three members of a veterinary team who assessed Lucca’s injuries and sent her to Kandahar, where she had surgery in a “human” hospital with “human” medical doctors, two surgeons, and an anesthesiologist, who removed her limb. 

Jill and Chris were celebrating their anniversary when they heard the terrible news.  They were concerned about Rodriguez’s condition, and after hearing that he was physically and emotionally all right, they focused on Lucca.  Chris describes how both he and Jill were devastated, how “our hearts were broken.  We were extremely upset.”  Luckily, Lucca survived, and, being the resilient dog she is, she has no lingering emotional or traumatic stress. 

Because of the injury, the Willinghams were able to adopt Lucca earlier than planned.  Jill knew right away that Lucca was going to be accepted as part of the family, but Lucca “needed to learn her place in the pecking order.  Her previous relationship with Chris did not have many children around, so we all went through some growing pains.  They were this dynamic duo.  She had to get used to the children, and they needed to respect her space.  Now our children consider her not only a pet, but a hero as well, who saved a lot of lives.”

Everyone interviewed is hoping that Lucca’s story exemplifies to Americans the importance of the military working dog team.  These teams are never given enough credit on how many lives they save.   Lucca and Chris are an inspiration that has allowed countless service people to be around to spend the holidays with their families.  Their unfailing courage and compassion reveal how the bond between working dogs and their handlers save lives, both on and off the battlefield.

The author writes for American Thinker.  She has done book reviews and author interviews and has written a number of national security, political, and foreign policy articles.

The holiday season is about giving and sharing.  What better way than to give the gift of life, which is what one special military dog, Lucca, did for countless people serving in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars?  The Marine Corps League in Tuscaloosa gave her a Purple Heart plaque; a two-time Purple Heart Marine recipient gave her one of his Purple Heart ribbons; the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Fairfax, Virginia gave her an honorary position; and other groups celebrated her and her service.

This is the story of two heroes, one male and one female, one four-legged, and her handler, Chris Willingham, who came to prominence in the book Top Dog, by Maria Goodavage.

Chris and Lucca first met in Israel in 2006.  He was one of four Marines sent over to participate in the elite Israeli Oketz K-9 group, from which the Marines would return with the dog they trained.  What struck him the most was the time and effort put into training both the handler and the dog.  Whereas Israel devotes about nine months to train a dog, the U.S. dogs have about half that time.  Chris considers himself one of the lucky ones, because after the training in Israel was finished, he was able to bring Lucca home to become an invaluable partner. 


Chris and Lucca in Iraq.

Chris and Lucca had such a rapport that Lucca was able to work off leash.  They used a “verbal leash,” and Lucca got to the point where every few minutes, she would look backward to confirm that Chris was there.  For him, this tacitly made sense, since she was still in eyesight, but he was able to maintain situational awareness that freed up his hands, so he could look for visual indicators.  Lucca served alongside both Special Forces and regular infantry and became so sought after that platoons frequently requested her by name.

Chris Willingham commented to American Thinker, “Military dogs have drive, loyalty, intelligence, are trainable, can handle the rigors of combat, and can take directions.  The handlers have to be independent thinkers, mature, responsible, have confidence in themselves and the dog, but are never cocky.  Being a kennel master at Pendleton, and a supervisor for all the Marines and the military dogs, including training and operational readiness, I can tell a special dog.  I personally think the best breeds for the military are the German Shepherd and the Belgian Malinois, because they are the easiest to train.  Lucca, being a mix of both these breeds, had the best of both worlds.  I know all handlers think their dogs are the best, but she is truly the best.  She is a real Marine, and we are called a team for a reason.”

Kris Knight, a fellow dog handler and a supervisor, will be retiring this month.  He is called the “dog whisperer” since he knows so much about training a dog.  He describes the relationship between Lucca and Chris as “the perfect match.  They are absolute rock stars.  Like one in a thousand, who did something no one else will be able to duplicate during my lifetime.  They had such a rapport.  Too bad she could not be cloned.  She went on over four hundred missions, and no one lost a life to an IED.”

The importance of military dogs can be exemplified in a quote from Maria’s first book, Soldier Dogs: “There is one response that the Taliban has no answer for: the soldier dogs.”  Maria strongly believes that Lucca frustrated many an insurgent bomb maker with her intelligence, calmness, and heroism, “a great force multiplier.  Lucca embodies all the best qualities of military dogs: intelligence, dedication, bravery, passion for the job, calm in the face of danger, a deep connection with her handlers, and most of all, a phenomenal nose that detected explosives better than any machine out there.”


Chris and Lucca in the U.S.

But Lucca was more than an explosive detector dog; she was also Chris’s savior.  After one of his buddies, a fellow dog handler, Kory Wiens, and his dog Cooper were killed in an explosion, Chris had survivor’s guilt.  Jill, Chris’s wife, believes that “Lucca filled in that role as man’s best friend.  At the time he was grieving over in Iraq, she provided solace and comfort.  Lucca helped him a lot when he was going through these tough times during deployment.”

Unfortunately, after ending his rotation, Chris had to find another partner for Lucca.  A lot of dog handlers with his rank of staff sergeant get to pick their replacement.  Corporal Juan "Rod" Rodriguez was chosen, since he had a good rapport with his other dogs.  Chris remembers that once Rod and Lucca became a team, he backed off, telling her, “This isn’t goodbye, Lucca.  It’s just a temporary thing.  Rod’s a great guy, and he’ll take good care of you.”  He sealed it with a hug.  However, Chris made it clear to Rod that he was adopting Lucca.  She was seven years old when Rod and she left for Afghanistan.  After their deployment was finished, Lucca would be of adoption age, so Chris made sure the papers were filled out ahead of time.

But on March 23, 2012, Lucca was taken out by an IED that mangled one of her legs.

Maria wants Americans to know that even though dogs are still labeled as equipment, they are not considered that by the team.  She points to the personnel, time, and money spent to save Lucca’s life.  While Rod applied a tourniquet to stop the bleeding, the Green Berets pulled security around them, protecting the dog team.  A Delta medic ran over and injected Lucca with morphine to relax her body.  Within ten minutes of the blast, a medevac helicopter arrived, taking Rod and Lucca to Camp Leatherneck.  They were met by three members of a veterinary team who assessed Lucca’s injuries and sent her to Kandahar, where she had surgery in a “human” hospital with “human” medical doctors, two surgeons, and an anesthesiologist, who removed her limb. 

Jill and Chris were celebrating their anniversary when they heard the terrible news.  They were concerned about Rodriguez’s condition, and after hearing that he was physically and emotionally all right, they focused on Lucca.  Chris describes how both he and Jill were devastated, how “our hearts were broken.  We were extremely upset.”  Luckily, Lucca survived, and, being the resilient dog she is, she has no lingering emotional or traumatic stress. 

Because of the injury, the Willinghams were able to adopt Lucca earlier than planned.  Jill knew right away that Lucca was going to be accepted as part of the family, but Lucca “needed to learn her place in the pecking order.  Her previous relationship with Chris did not have many children around, so we all went through some growing pains.  They were this dynamic duo.  She had to get used to the children, and they needed to respect her space.  Now our children consider her not only a pet, but a hero as well, who saved a lot of lives.”

Everyone interviewed is hoping that Lucca’s story exemplifies to Americans the importance of the military working dog team.  These teams are never given enough credit on how many lives they save.   Lucca and Chris are an inspiration that has allowed countless service people to be around to spend the holidays with their families.  Their unfailing courage and compassion reveal how the bond between working dogs and their handlers save lives, both on and off the battlefield.

The author writes for American Thinker.  She has done book reviews and author interviews and has written a number of national security, political, and foreign policy articles.