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Lucca The War Dog

Maria Goodavage
The book opens in Afghanistan in March 2012, Lucca, an Explosives Search Dog, and her handler are working with a Green Beret team on a patrol when Lucca detects the smell of explosives and alerts his her handler; unfortunately there is a secondary charge which Lucca sets off seriously injuring her, blowing off one paw and completely taking her out of the game. She is medevaced back to proper veterinarian facilities.

The book is basically in three parts, recruitment and training for operations with the first tour to Iraq, the next tour to Afghanistan where she is badly injured, and the recovery and ‘celebrity’ life that she led afterwards. The book is not only about Lucca – War Dog K458, but about her handlers and in particular SSgt, later Gunnery Sgt, Chris Willingham. Lucca is a part German Shepherd, part Belgian Malinois, Sgt Willingham is pure USMC.

After selection in Israel and training in the USA, Willingham and Lucca do a tour in Iraq, with the Army, where Willingham, as the lone USMC, finds it a bit difficult fitting in. However they complete their tour, losing a handler and dog to IED. Returning to the USA and family there follows a year or so of more training rest and Willingham training the teams getting them ready to go on Ops. As life in the Forces go, his turn comes round again for another tour, this time in Afghanistan, but without Lucca who remains Stateside. Willingham is now in charge of the dog teams and therefore does not have a dog assigned – a very strange feeling for a man dedicated to dogs. Again a dog handler and dog are killed by IEDs and this hits Willingham very hard as there are now his team.

Returning to the USA he put is for a transfer to an Embassy detail and is assigned Helsinki. This lets him get some non-dog soldiering in and time with his family, all of whom needed that. He still maintains close contacts with the dog teams and has personally selected the next handler for Lucca, Cpl Rod Rodriquez. Rodriquez takes Lucca to Afghanistan where several months in she is wounded by a secondary IED, blowing off her left paw. Medevaced in exactly the same way as a wounded human she is treated, operated on and looked after as any wounded soldier. The facilities at the veterinary hospital is not good or sophisticated enough to treat Lucca so she is taken to the human hospital facilities and operated on by top surgeons with much experience in battle casualties. Flown back to the USA she recovers in the kennels and is eventually disposed of, retired in army terms. Lucca had carried out 400 operational patrols in Iraq and Afghanistan. Willingham puts in a request for her as a pet which is granted.

Now comes the celebrity part where the whole apparatus of support for wounded US servicemen is activated to treat Lucca in just the same fashion. Lucca has been out on nearly 400 patrols and found numerous IEDs and so has probably saved the lives of hundreds of US soldiers; therefore every honour is shown to her, almost in the same way as a human ex-Vet. Willinghan needs permission from the Ambassador to have Lucca imported as his pet; the Ambassador not only gives him permission but starts off the process for bringing Lucca to Helsinki, calling in contacts he knows to ensure a smooth journey. Arrangements are made and Cpl Rodriguez is detailed to take Lucca to Helsinki. The airline have a policy of treating wounded veterans with honour and Lucca is granted this in exactly the same way as a wounded human would have been. Flights are upgraded to Business, Lucca flies in the cabin, not in a cage in the hold. Receptions are held at the airports that she goes through with Vet Organisations greeting and treating her as a wounded vet; and of course, the media are involved. Lucca becomes a bit of a celebrity.

Lucca, now three legged, recovers almost completely and settles in as part of the Willingham family, and with the media attention she is recognised wherever she goes. Willingham is asked to take her to various veteran fundraising events across the USA which she does and is fully accepted as having a right to be there. After 400 operational patrols that surely is quite correct.

An easy, pleasant read, showing the bond between dog and handler which is so important if the team is to be an effective weapon against IEDs; that team-worth being recognised by the fact if a handler loses his dog in action, he is short-toured and returned to the USA to train with another dog.

A really good book, well written and while catching the heart strings, is not soppy; it is well worth the read and to realise that not all action in a war is done and seen by humans.

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