Lucca, a U.S. Marine Corps dog trained to detect improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, was awarded The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals’ Dickin Medal for her work in Afghanistan and Iraq. The medal is the highest award given to animals who serve in military conflicts.
The 12-year-old German Shepherd completed more than 400 missions during the six years she was in the service, NBC News reports.
She served two tours in Iraq with Gunnery Sgt. Chris Willingham, conducting clearing operations and counter insurgency operations. During her tours in Iraq, Lucca found weapons caches, IEDs and bombs, and was responsible for the apprehension of four insurgents, according to a statement released by the PDSA.
“Lucca is very intelligent, loyal and had an amazing drive for work as a search dog,” Willingham said in the PDSA statement. “She is the only reason I made it home to my family, and I am fortunate to have served with her. In addition to her incredible detection capabilities, Lucca was instrumental in increasing morale for the troops we supported. In between missions, I took the searching harness off and let her play and interact with the troops. Today, I do my best to keep her spoiled in her well-deserved retirement.”
She lost one of her legs in 2012 while out on her last patrol in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, according to the PDSA. She initially discovered an IED that was successfully disarmed, and when she was searching for other IEDs in the immediate vicinity, a second IED exploded, which took out her front leg and caused severe burns to her chest. Her handler at the time, Cpl. Juan Rodriguez, saved her life.
“The explosion was huge, and I immediately feared the worst for Lucca. I ran to her and saw her struggling to get up,” Rodriguez said in the PDSA statement. “I picked her up and ran to the shelter of a nearby tree line, applied a tourniquet to her injured leg and called the medics to collect us. I stayed with her constantly throughout her operation and her recovery. She had saved my life on so many occasions — I had to make sure that I was there for her when she needed me.”
She was evacuated to Germany for further treatment and then sent to Camp Pendleton in Southern California, according to NBC News. Rodriguez was with her through the entire rehabilitation.
As she recovered, her adoption paperwork was submitted and she was retired from active service. She now lives with Sgt. Willingham and his family in California.
The PDSA Dickin medal has been awarded to just 66 animals since the introduction of the medal in 1943. The recipients include 30 dogs, 32 World War II messenger pigeons, three horses and a cat. The medal is the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration awarded by the British government.