[I originally wrote this for Dogster.com. It’s reprinted here with permission.]
Marine dog Lucca is my hero. The German shepherd-Malinois mix led more than 400 missions during three deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, and no one she served with ever got hurt. Lucca’s job was to sniff out IEDs and other deadly explosives, which she was trained to do off leash. She found plenty, saving countless lives. But the last one found her first.
Lucca lost her left front leg and retired after a lifetime of selfless service. She now lives the good life with her original handler and his family in Southern California. Sometimes her second handler visits from the Midwest, and the two handlers “co-parent” Lucca. It’s heartwarming to watch Lucca with her two favorite men in the world at her side.
There are so many reasons to love this three-legged Marine hero. Here are 10 of them, complete with photos.
1. She has your back when you need it
Lucca faithfully protects her second handler, Juan “Rod” Rodriguez, while on deployment with Special Forces in Afghanistan. She wasn’t trained to do this. She just did it.
2. She works like a dog to save her people from bombs
Lucca and her legendary nose get the lay of the land in Baghdad on her first combat deployment, with handler Chris Willingham. Even now, in retirement, she sometimes checks out places for bombs for old time’s sake.
3. She knows when to take a hand from a friend…
Willingham keeps up his end of a pact he made with Lucca after a grueling morning in Iraq.
It’s a long story involving a triple amputee who threw Lucca his prosthetic hand at Walter Reed National Military Center because he liked her. It bounced like a Kong. What else was she supposed to do?
5. She looks fabulous no matter what she wears
Lucca looks almost proud to be wearing handler Chris Willingham’s shirt during some down time on their second deployment to Iraq, doesn’t she? Her then “boyfriend,” Posha, looks like he’s not quite so sure about his outfit.
6. And if she doesn’t, she doesn’t care
Wonky Doggles? Not a problem for Lucca, who is always up for a laugh and a wag.
7. She fights through adversity
Lucca starts on the road to recovery after a top surgical team consisting of veterinarians and “human” doctors amputated her leg because of the damage inflicted by the IED. Two days after surgery, she was walking unaided. Because she’s just that kind of dog.
8. And thrives on new missions now
Lucca’s missions have changed since her retirement. When she accompanies Willingham, who adopted her, to schools and veterans/military hospitals, it’s hard to tell who enjoys the visits more — Lucca or those she’s visiting.
9. She savors each day
Lucca is a genuinely happy dog who seems to see the best in everything and everyone. Here, the contented legend enjoys her well-deserved 10th birthday celebration with her loving family.
10. And lives life to the fullest…Always
We can all learn a lot from this beautiful hero. She’s a great inspiration to me. I hope she will be to you, too.
On September 19, I saw a photo of a familiar dog on my Facebook newsfeed. A black Lab named Turbo. I looked at the name of the person posting it. Jon Silvey. Also familiar. I searched my emails and saw the start of his first note to me in May of 2012, from Afghanistan:
I just returned to my task force kennels after a few extremely long mission and was greeted by a few care packages. I was lucky enough to receive a heart felt care package from you containing a little piece of home and an amazing book. I am so grateful of all the supporters from back in the States but was especially overwhelmed by your book…
I re-read our subsequent correspondence, and messaged Sgt. Silvey to get an update. By great coincidence, he had adopted Turbo that very day. “He just retired today after 10 years of service,” he wrote. “He has served 3 tours as a specialized search dog, and has been with me 5 years. We have worked with Special Forces from different branches and countries.”
It was heartwarming to read — in hindsight now that he has become Turbo’s “dad” (this from a father of four human children) — what he wrote about working with this black Lab with a great nose — and about my book as well.
Let me just first say how much I love my job. I have been in the Army for some time now and done a lot of different things but nothing compares to showing up to work and seeing Turbo’s excite-full face every morning. So I am very appreciative to receive a signed book from you that depicts what we all know already but what others in the States and abroad need to know. People need to grasp that dogs are such an important part of the fight and they save many lives.
I can truly say that I have never had a battle buddy that I trusted more with my life than
Turbo. He always lends an ear when I need someone to talk to and he never interrupts. He doesn’t talk much but when I look into his eyes I know that he is listening to every word I say. Thank you for addressing this and putting it out there for people to read.
He wrote me that he feels like he was meant to be with Turbo. A series of coincidences put them in each other’s realm on various occasions, and he finally ended up being matched with Turbo at SSD (specialized search dog) school at Lackland Air Force Base. He wrote in later emails that he has deployed and mobilized four times before that deployment with Turbo, but as an MP without a dog.
He couldn’t believe his luck in getting Turbo for his first deployment as a dog handler – a job he calls “the best in the Army.”
I’ve done a lot of things in my Army career and worked with some of the best the Army has to offer but nothing compares to being a dog handler and working with Turbo everyday. Turbo does more than find explosives. He finds ways to motivate me and others around him on a daily basis.
Being an SSD, he has two jobs. He is an explosive detector dog and a morale officer. Around here everyone knows Turbo or has heard of him. He brings joy and comfort to everyone he works around and everyone that he passes by. Soldiers and contractors stop me all the time so they can pet Turbo or take pictures with him. They always tell me stories of their dogs back home and how Turbo reminds them of their dog.
In another email from Afghanistan, he continued talking about his partner.
I am honored to be able to do what I do everyday. Turbo just always seems to brighten up everyone’s day. As soon as they see him there’s an automatic smile from everyone and a cheerfulness that explodes from their faces. From time to time he is a cuddle bug but really he just likes to try to play fetch with everyone.
The secret to Turbo’s heart is a ball or a treat. If Turbo could talk I think he would say “I have never met a treat didn’t like”. As far as a 6th sense, I think all dogs have the gift to recognize the needy and lonely. Turbo always knows when I need that extra lick on the face or the paw on my leg that almost says “everything is going to be alright.” Dogs are truly amazing.
He sent along this pic of Turbo wearing booties, with an explanation.
Turbo wears booties a lot because of the gravel found at a lot of the FOB (forward operating bases) and PSS (police sub stations). Turbo also is older and has joint issues from time to time and wearing the booties helps him maintain a even surface while walking around. Turbo wears his booties on a lot of missions. Especially when he is searching areas that contain a lot of glass, chemicals, metal, and things of that nature. We call them his “Air Turbs”. He is thinking about his own shoe line. Lol!
I took this photo to show people some of the conditions the MWDs have to search in. It’s not a picnic by any means for them. They get down and search through some nasty stuff. Including human waste and garbage.
Our correspondence continued, and I asked where Turbo sleeps, being 99.99 percent sure of the answer. This is what he wrote.
Turbo always sleeps with me. When we are back at the kennels (which is really just a tent and doesn’t consist of any real kennels) Turbo sleeps on my bed with me. He has his spot and I have mine. When we are out on mission Turbo will sleep in my sleeping bag with me or right next to me. He doesn’t like to leave my side to often. Missions are all different and Turbo and I never know where we will be sleeping. On one mission in the mountains we slept on a hill side and when we woke up there was like a foot of snow on top of us. I just depends on the mission.
He went on to talk about Turbo’s most valuable asset: his nose, and his ability to use it to save lives.
Turbo and I walk point on missions. Given the nature of the enemy’s dedication of trying to blow us up. You really must trust your partner’s nose when you are out front walking a roadway, path, wadi, orchard, compound, or village. I can safely say that no one has ever suffered an injury due to Turbo missing anything. Everyone has followed behind us with no issues. I would go as far as to say that Turbo could find the needle in the haystack if you catch my drift. Even my wife and kids say that “daddy will be ok because he has Turbo and Turbo would never let anything happened to daddy.”
It’s as if Turbo should be wearing tights and a cape. He is not equipment. He is my hero and guardian. He is my battle buddy and my friend. He’s not only a Soldier with four-legs and a sniffer. He is Soldier that works for a simple pat on the head or a ball. He doesn’t care if it is to hot or raining. He doesn’t complain or run his mouth. He just does his job. That’s all he knows how to do, and he loves doing it. Turbo is my equal.
I got sand in my eyes as I read the words of this man working with Special Forces and infantry in Kandahar Province. It would be more than two years later that we’d pick up the thread of our conversation, when I found the photo of Turbo on his Facebook page.
He and Turbo had some close calls, and Turbo now has PTSD when he hears loud noises, poor fellow. But he’s safe at home now, with four children, two other dogs, and all the love and tennis balls he can handle.
Turbo’s retired life is becoming more real for him everyday. He couldn’t believe that he could have a ball or toy without having to do something for it. He slept with two tennis balls last night lol. He loves my two little boys and likes to just hang out with them while they play XBOX or watch TV. He was a little confused when I got in my ACUs this morning and wasn’t allowed to come with me to work. (Silvey is still an Army dog handler.) He still goes in front of me when I walk around the house as if he still needs to clear a path for me. He is my best friend and an amazing dog. I don’t think I could ever express in words how much he means to me. I am so happy he is finally home and look forward to our new adventures together.
Welcome home, Turbo. May you have years of the life you deserve. Thank you for your service, and Sgt. Silvey and family, thank you for opening your hearts and home to this beloved soldier dog.
There’s nothing like a reunion, especially with a military dog who saved your life – and the lives of many others – on numerous occasions during dangerous deployments. After too many months apart, you wonder if the dog will even recognize you, much less be happy to see you.
Last week, Marine Gunnery Sgt. Chris Willingham, who is serving in Helsinki, Finland, had the reunion of a lifetime when his old military working dog, Lucca K458, stepped off a plane with her most recent handler, Marine Cpl. Juan Rodriguez. The 8-year-old Belgian Malinois was a little older, and missing one leg because of her last heroic act in war, but he’d have recognized her anywhere. Did Lucca recognize him? Read on in these dispatches Gunny Willingham sent us from Finland. (I got to know Gunny Willingham during my research into the tragic story of Cpl. Max Donahue’s for my book Soldier Dogs. He was his platoon sergeant, and thought the world of him.)
Dispatches to Soldier Dogs by Gunny Willingham
In 2006, I was paired with Specialized Search Dog Lucca. We served two tours in Iraq and we were extremely successful. Lucca was credited with numerous finds and the arrest of 5 insurgents. Kris Knight can tell you what a special dog Lucca is.
Upon returning from Afghanistan in December 2010, I received orders to Marine Security Guard School. I’m currently serving at the US Embassy in Helsinki, Finland. Before I left, I was able to select the handler to take over as Lucca’s handler. I selected Cpl. Rodriguez. We have the same personalities and I knew he would make a great team with Lucca. In November 2011, I headed to Helsinki, Finland and Cpl. Rodriguez, Lucca and the rest of my old platoon headed back to Afghanistan.
Lucca and Rodriguez were very successful during there deployment. The were in direct support of a Special Operations unit. On 23 March, while walking point on a patrol, Lucca responded to an IED. As they began to sweep for secondaries, a second device exploded. Lucca was injured but immediately started running back to Rodriguez. Rodriguez, ran and met her half way, quickly assessed the injuries and applied a tourniquet, which saved her life, then called in a MEDEVAC.
No member of the patrol was hurt. Lucca, again, was responsible for saving lives. She suffered burns to her neck and torso and her front left leg had to later be amputated.
She is currently at Camp Pendleton, where she recovered from the injury. Despite the amputation, Lucca can run around and is serving as the Kennel’s mascot. Most importantly, she has the same personality. She is amazing and her recovery was better than any one could have expected.
A couple weeks ago, she was cleared for retirement and I submitted my adoption package. Today, Rodriguez’s passport came in the mail. I am going to fly her and Rodriguez to Finland. Rodriguez will stay for 10 -12 days before returning to California. I thought it would be a great transition for Lucca and I wanted to personally thank Rodriguez for saving her life.
I’m trying to arrange a flight through American Airlines for the first week of July; Depart 3-5 July and return 16 July. The Embassy staff have been very supportive of my efforts to get Lucca over here. I’m trying to get her flown over here in the cabin since she is retired Explosive detection dog. I know it’s a long shot but i was wondering if you have an connections with American Airlines.
MG note: I searched around and made a couple of possible connections in the next few days, but he beat me to it.
I’m getting all the details on Monday but I think American Airlines is going to pay for the airfare for Lucca and Rodriguez. Rodriguez was also on my first deployment to Afghanistan, with Max Donahue. He had a Patrol Explosive Detection dog, RRolfe, the first deployment.
She should be here in the next week to ten days. I can’t wait.
This story took on a life of its own. Cpl. Rodriguez and Lucca arrived at Helsinki yesterday, Friday, at 0830. He was greeted by two camera crews in San Diego. When they arrived in Chicago for there layover, they held a brief ceremony with color guard and she received cheers from the people in the airport.
When she arrived in Helsinki, the Ambassador, some other key Embassy employees and I met Lucca at a private terminal. Basically, the plane landed and pulled up to gate 38 and only let Lucca and Rodriguez off and then off loaded everyone else at a different gate. Also, there were about 12 camera crews and journalist covering the story. One of the press members joked that Lucca received more press coverage than the recent visit of Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.
Jill and the kids made four “welcome home” signs that we posted up in the terminal. American Airlines also had a couple swag bags for Lucca and Rodriuez along with a display of with pics of Lucca.
When they first entered the terminal, I knelt down and it was almost like you could see it process for her in slow motion when she approached me. It took a couple seconds to realize she was home. Lucca immediately started licking my face for about a solid minute. It brought back a lot of old memories seeing Lucca and Rodriguez.
About 2 weeks after I reported to Finland, my old platoon deployed. I kept in touch with a lot of the Marines and I would call Leatherneck every few weeks to check in with the Kennelmaster, SSgt Nuckles. On March 23rd, when Lucca was injured, I talked to Rodriguez about six hours after the incident. My first concern was to ensure Rodriguez was okay. We stayed in contact over the next week until Lucca and Rod returned to Camp Pendleton. She started doing really well during her rehab so, the next step was to discuss adoption. Rodriguez and I had a conversation about the adoption, and it was clear he wanted her to be reunited with me and my family. I worked with GySgt Green to submit the adoption paperwork.
3 1/2 months later, Lucca and Rodriguez arrived in Finland. Words cannot describe the feelings of being reunited with a Working Dog, who had saved my life numerous times. Also, I was also equally exciting and important to see Cpl Rodriguez. He also, knew what a special dog Lucca is. During a dismounted patrol on March 23rd, Lucca responded on an IED, it was here second IED to find during the patrol. Rodriguez began searching for secondaries, when a second device exploded. Wounded, Lucca began running back to the patrol. Rodriguez met her half way and applied a tourniquet with follow on first aid which saved Lucca’s life. She suffered burns to her neck and torso and her front left leg had to later be amputated.
A couple reporters followed us back to our house to capture the first few moments of Lucca being home. Lucca and Rodriguez both slept for about 4-5 hours. Around 1730, we went to the Marine house and hosted a BBQ. About 30 Embassy employees and their families came out to meet Lucca and Rodriguez. Also, we had Janis, who is the American Airlines representative, who made this whole trip possible, and two of the pilots who flew Lucca and Rod over. It was a great event and everyone was excited to meet Lucca and Rod.
Rodriguez will stay with me and my family for the next 12 days. Lucca will be sleeping in his room because I know
Lucca means a lot to Rod as well, and I want them to spend time together over the next couple weeks. Plus, I think it will serve as a good transition for Lucca to have both of us around for a couple weeks.
I will be the first to admit that dogs are “proven but not perfect.” In fact, I would often use that phrase in my capabilities and limitations brief to supporting units while deployed. However, every patrol that Lucca led during her three combat deployments, resulted in zero injuries. Even the patrol when Lucca was hurt, no other member of the patrol was injured.
Lucca was responsible for saving hundreds of lives and she was also directly responsible for the arrest of five insurgents. Again, it was hard to describe the feeling of being reunited with a couple of heroes in Lucca and Cpl. Rodriguez.
Until the now-famous Navy SEAL Team Six raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound last year, most people had no idea that dogs are a vital part of the military. But these four-legged heroes have saved tens of thousands of lives since World War II, when the U.S. embarked on its military working dog program.
I grew up steeped in the importance of war dogs thanks to my dad, who was a very young soldier back then. He told me about the bonds the handlers had with their dogs, and how the dogs – as important as they were on missions – were just as essential for the morale of troops. His stories struck a chord with me, and I was thrilled years later when I got a chance to write a book about brave, loyal, amazing dogs and their devoted handlers.
My book, Soldier Dogs: The Untold Story of America’s Canine Heroes, was published last month, and I’m excited that after all the hard work and boots-on-the-ground reporting the book entailed, people are really starting to take notice of these incredible dogs and their handlers. The book has received a lot of attention, including a great review in People magazine, and a fun stint for me on The Daily
. (Update: The book has become a New York Times Best Seller!)
This puts a wag in my tail, because I am passionate about these dog teams. The more people know about them, the better off the dogs and handlers will be. So today I bring you 10 surprising facts about today’s military dog teams. All photos except the plane jumper are of dogs and handlers featured in my book. Here’s to our paws-on-the-ground heroes!
1. Soldier dogs are selected for the military based in part on their love of a ball or a Kong.
This reward is going to be part of their “paycheck” for years to come (a handler’s heartfelt praise is the other part), and they have to want the ball really badly to work as hard as they need to in order to save lives in combat situations.
2. Soldier dogs believe in magic.
If they didn’t, they may not be the lifesavers they are. The main job for military dogs in today’s wars is sniffing out IEDs, which are the number one killer in Afghanistan. But how does a dog get to know the difference between an explosive and an interesting-smelling rock? Magic, of a sort.
A dog’s early encounters associating a scent with a reward are all about the surprising appearance of a Kong that seems to spring right out of the scent itself. Trainers hide a Kong toy or ball somewhere, and place a few drops of a scent in the area. When the dog hits the scent, he thinks, “Whoa! I’ve never smelled this before!” and shows a tiny change of behavior, perhaps stopping or wagging or tilting his head. At that moment, a trainer throws the ball so it lands right on the source of the odor, and the dog is cheered on for his “feat.”
This happens a few more times, placing the odor in various spots and having a ball “magically” land on it when the dog successfully sniffs the odor. Many dogs learn extremely rapidly to associate an odor and a ball. (Eventually they’re weaned from this and get the ball reward in a different way.) That dogs can believe the scent of something like potassium chlorate magically creates a bouncing Kong is just one of those things that makes them so loveable and endearing.
3. The bond between a deployed handler and soldier dog is like no other.
I was blown away by the love that even the toughest of these soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have for their canine comrades. When you’re at war and you’re together almost 24/7 (sometimes sharing a tent, or even a sleeping bag or foxhole, for weeks on end), when you depend on each other for everything, including your very lives, an incomparable bond forms. Hearing a war-hardened Marine’s voice break when he talks about his best friend is a very moving experience.
4. Not all soldier dogs are big, tough warriors.
Sure, breeds like German shepherds and Belgian Malinois are the most common war dogs these days, but affable Labrador retrievers play a major role as sniffer dogs in Afghanistan. And there are also some very little dogs in the military. But I learned that “little” does not mean “diminutive.”
I had the pleasure of meeting a Jack Russell terrier, Lars J274, on a nuclear submarine as he sniffed around for explosives last summer. He was a jaunty little fellow with a Napoleon complex. Submariners would laugh has he trotted down the narrow walkways, but he didn’t care. “Inside, he’s a big dog with a big attitude,” his handler told me.
5. Dogs are the ultimate anthropologists.
They study us. They observe us. They smell changes in our very chemistry. They learn to predict us. And they seem to know when their people are having a bad day.
Rex L274 was a big, sensitive German shepherd. He had failed out of aggression training because anytime he bit someone wearing protective gear during practice, and they yelled or screamed in response, he immediately let go and seemed to look concerned and sad. So his career path changed, and he became a highly trained off-leash bomb sniffer.
His sensitivity to the people around him played out in the form of becoming a sort of unofficial therapy dog wherever he went. “He’d always find the one soldier who was having a hard day and hang out with them,” his handler, Army Sgt. Amanda Ingraham, told me. His favorite therapy was to cheer up down soldiers by getting them to play with a water bottle. After all, he liked playing with water bottles, so it would seem natural that they would too. He’d run up and bonk them with a water bottle (empty or full, it didn’t matter). Or he’d sit next to him crunching the bottle and periodically banging it against the soldier with the blues. Eventually the soldier would take the bait, and a grand game of tug-of-war or a big chase would ensue.
6. Some dogs really do jump from planes.
These extremely resilient, super-high-drive dogs are specially procured and trained by military contractors, not the DOD’s Military Working Dog program. Some join their human partners in parachute jumps from planes, others rappel with their handlers from helicopters. The dogs who do this are known as multi-purpose canines (MPCs), and are used used in Special Operations teams, including the Navy SEALs. They’re a tiny subset of military dogs, but can serve very important roles, as Cairo, the dog involved in the SEAL Team Six raid on the Bin Laden compound, demonstrated.
7. Soldier dogs can get PTSD.
Until last year, canine post traumatic stress disorder wasn’t officially recognized by the military, but now that it is, it’s being taken very seriously. Signs of Canine PTSD include hypervigilance, increased startle response, attempts to run away or escape, withdrawal, changes in rapport with a handler, and problems performing trained tasks – like a bomb dog who just can’t focus on sniffing out bombs any more.
As with people, some dogs can go to hell and back and not be badly scarred. Others are profoundly affected by less. There are treatments, but they aren’t as effective as they need to be. Research into canine PTSD is in its infancy, but I hope it will one day soon offer some better solutions for the dogs who are suffering so.
While at Lackland Air Force Base, which is where most military dogs get trained, I visited the base’s adoption kennels and was greeted by the loads of barking, energetic dogs. But this one beautiful chocolate Lab, Buck P027, was curled up tightly, staring out into nothingness. It turns out Buck had been a bomb dog in Afghanistan. He may have seen too much action or been close to one too many explosions. It was really heartbreaking to see this dog who was crushed by PTSD lying alone. Thankfully the next day he went home with a couple who loves him to pieces. They’re working on helping him through his PTSD every day. I am in touch with them and get regular reports on his progress.
8. Soldier dog names can be downright embarrassing to their handlers.
Dogs are named by their breeders, who are hail from places like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the Netherlands, and Germany. There are plenty of regal or at least normal names, like Rex, Nero, and Rocky. And then there are the unfortunate or oddball ones. Imagine being downrange in a life-or-death situation, and shouting for “Baby Cakes!” “Baby Bear!” “Busty!” or “Moo!” Yes, those are real military working dog names.
Male dogs sometimes have female names, like Kitty, or Freida, and vice-versa. The handler of Freida said it was very awkward calling his name. He swears the breeders are just messing with American handlers, and I have a feeling he’s right.
9. When soldier dogs die, their memorial services will rip your heart out.
Their bowls are placed upside down, to symbolize that they won’t need them anymore. Their collars and leashes are hung up in remembrance of the dog. And if the memorial is at a kennel, the dog’s kennel door is left open, indicating the dog will not be returning home. The handler, or someone who can handle the heartbreaking duty, reads a poem called Guardians of the Night. I can’t even think about it without tearing up. A lot of handlers can’t either.
10. Soldier dogs are still officially considered equipment by the Defense Department.
Most handlers consider their dogs their best friends, but to the DOD, military working dogs are still officially equipment.
“I try to articulate dog is not a piece of equipment, but a working, breathing animal that needs to be treated respectfully and kindly,” says Air Force Senior Master Sergeant Antonio (Arod) Rodriguez. “Your dog is your partner, and values meaningful interaction. You just don’t think about equipment in the same way.”
There’s some fantastic legislation in Congress right now that seeks to change this status. You can read about it in a post I wrote for Dogster. In it I explain how you can weigh in on this very important bipartisan bill, The Canine Members of the Armed Forces Act. These dogs deserve all the support we can give them.
Reprinted with permission of the author (me!) from an article at Dogster magazine.