Heroic US Marine Corps service dog awarded top medal for war animals

A heroic U.S. Marine Corps German shepherd that lost a leg sniffing out a roadside bomb in Afghanistan was awarded the world's highest honor for service dogs during a special ceremony Tuesday.

Lucca, who served U.S. troops during more than 400 missions in Iraq and Afghanistan over a six-year span, received the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) Dickin Medal at the Wellington Barracks in London. She is the first Marine Corps dog to receive the medal, considered the top honor for war animals around the world.

Her handler, Gunnery Sgt. Christopher Willingham, told Sky News that it was an "incredible honor" to receive the award from the veterinary charity.

"It is very humbling to be part of this entire process,” he said. “I think more importantly is that Lucca's accomplishments are going to help bring awareness and recognition to all our military working dogs and their handlers.”

"Through all of her treatment, and despite the pain she was in, her temperament never changed."

— Cpl. Juan Rodriguez

There were no human casualties during Lucca’s bomb-sniffing patrols. Her career ended in March 2012 when she lost her leg and suffered chest burns from a bombing in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.

Cpl. Juan Rodriguez, who was her handler at the time, stayed by her side throughout each step of Lucca’s recovery.

"The explosion was huge and I immediately feared the worst for Lucca,” he told The Telegraph. “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.”

Ten days later, after an operation, Lucca was up and walking again.

"Through all of her treatment, and despite the pain she was in, her temperament never changed,” Rodriguez said. “Her fighting spirit was plain to see and I was so proud of how quickly she recovered."

Hero Dog Lucca's Story

After six years of active service with the US Marine Corps, search and rescue dog Lucca now enjoys a well-earned retirement with her handler and his family in California. Today we awarded Lucca the highest animal honour – the PDSA Dickin Medal: http://ow.ly/10iQK2

Posted by PDSA – Help a vet help a pet on Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Willingham, who now takes care of Lucca in California, told Sky News that he tries his “best to keep her spoiled in her well-deserved retirement.” He traveled to London to accept the medal Tuesday.

"Lucca's conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty makes her a hugely deserving recipient of the PDSA Dickin Medal,” said Jan McLoughlin, director general of the PDSA. “Her ability and determination to seek out arms and explosives preserved human life amid some of the world's fiercest military conflicts."

Since the medal was introduced in 1943, it has been awarded to dozens of dogs and World War II messenger pigeons, as well as three horses and a cat.

Diesel, a French police dog who was killed in the raid to capture terrorists behind the deadly Nov. 13 Paris attacks, will also posthumously receive the medal this year.