One incredibly heroic German Shepherd was awarded the highest medal for valor at the Wellington Barracks in London Tuesday.
Trained to sniff out enemy weapons and explosives, 12-year-old Lucca served on 400 separate missions with the Marines over six years in Iraq and Afghanistan. During her watch, not a single soldier died.
Her trainer and first handler, Gunnery Sgt. Chris Willingham, served for two tours of duty with Lucca in Iraq and calls her "just one of the boys."
"We treat these dogs just like a fellow Marine, so it really is a team effort when you're out there because your life is in your dog's detection capabilities," Willingham said. "You are there to make sure the dog is properly employed and you look after the dog and make sure the dog doesn't go in harm's way."
Lucca also served in Afghanistan with her second handler, Corporal Juan Rodriguez. But in 2012, her illustrious career came to an abrupt end when she lost her leg to a hidden bomb. She had already sniffed out 30 pounds of explosives and was looking for more, when a second device detonated, resulting in her severe injuries.
Corporal Rodriguez said she had saved his life so many times before, that it was now his turn to stand by Lucca. And he did - he was there during the emergency surgery and slept by her side during her recovery at a U.S. base in Kandahar. A bandage on Lucca features the U.S. Marine Corps motto - semper fi, or "always loyal."
Lucca is the first U.S. Marine dog to win the PDSA Dicken Medal -- the animal equivalent of the British Victoria Cross, the highest military honor for valor in the U.K. She joins a proud history of 66 other recipients of the prestigious medal, including Apollo, the NYPD search and rescue dog who tirelessly searched for life underneath the rubble of 9/11. She also joins GI Joe, the pigeon who flew a record-breaking 20 miles in as many minutes to save allied forces from attack.
Since leaving active service, Lucca was adopted by Willingham and is now living out a happy retirement as one of the family.
"She enjoys family walks and loves getting into the water," Willingham said. "Other than that, just laying on the couch, relaxing and kind of just enjoying her retirement."