In 2012, Lucca, a bomb-sniffing U.S. Marine Corps dog, lost her front leg in a roadside IED blast while on duty in Afghanistan. The hero canine had already served in the military for over six years, successfully completing more than 400 missions and protecting the lives of thousands of allied troops in areas of conflict in the Middle East.
There reportedly wasn’t a single human casualty during any of her patrols.
“She is the only reason I made it home to my family and I am fortunate to have served with her,” said Gunnery Sgt. Chris Willingham, who now cares for Lucca. “In addition to her incredible detection capabilities, Lucca was instrumental in increasing morale for the troops we supported.”
This week, Lucca was recognized for her years of service and heroism.
On Tuesday, the 12-year-old German shepherd received the prestigious Dickin Medal -- described as the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross -- which is the highest military decoration awarded for valor in the U.K.
The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), a British charity that’s been awarding the PDSA Dickin Medal since 1943, said it is the highest honor that any animal in the world can achieve for military service. Lucca was the first American dog to receive the medal.
“Lucca’s conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty makes her a hugely deserving recipient of the PDSA Dickin Medal,” Jan McLoughlin, PDSA’s director general, said in a statement. “Her ability and determination to seek out arms and explosives preserved human life amid some of the world’s fiercest military conflicts.”
On March 23, 2012, Lucca lost her leg and suffered burns while on patrol for bombs. She found a weapons cache in a poppy field that day, as well as an IED, which was successfully cleared. Later, however, a second IED detonated as she was searching for other weapons.
No soldiers were injured in the blast.
“The explosion was huge and I immediately feared the worst for Lucca,” said one of her handlers, Cpl. Juan Rodriguez. “I ran to her and saw her struggling to get up. 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.”
Lucca was evacuated from Afghanistan to Germany for treatment, then moved to Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in California to complete her recovery.
“She had her surgery and amazingly within 10 days she was walking around again,” Willingham told ABC News. ”The best part is that she has the same personality as she had before the blast.”
Today, Lucca is enjoying retirement in California. She spends her days visiting schools and attending community events -- and getting lots of cuddles and treats.
“I do my best to keep her spoiled,” Willingham said.