Ex-Marine dog awarded highest military honor

Posted at 12:41 PM, Apr 05, 2016
and last updated 2016-04-05 15:41:49-04

A retired U.S. Marine dog was honored today with the PDSA Dickin Medal, the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross which is the highest British military decoration awarded for valor.

Lucca, a German Shepherd, received the award after completing 400 missions in six years of active service with allied troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and losing a leg on the battlefield.

"It's an incredible honor to be part of this award ceremony today," said her handler Gunnery Sergeant Christopher Willingham.

Willingham deployed to Iraq with Lucca twice after training her for more than a year and says her personality is what made her so perfect for the job.

"She's incredibly intelligent and loyal," the Sergeant told ABC News. "You can really see her processing information, applying what she learned in a combat environment and be successful. I feel extremely fortunate."

"We really got in sync," Willingham added. "She almost knew what I wanted before I had to ask. Her drive and overall character were absolutely amazing."

In 2012 Lucca lost her leg and suffered severe burns to her chest after discovering an improvised explosive device (IED) in Afghanistan.

"She had her surgery and amazingly within 10 days she was walking around again," Willingham said. "The best part is that she has the same personality as she had before the blast."

Former commanding generals of the U.S. Army Public Health Command addressed Lucca directly at the event.

"I know you don't understand the words but I hope you sense the human warmth, gratitude and pride that we all feel for your heroism and for a job extremely well done," said Retired Maj. Gen. Dean G. Sienko.

The military has used dogs since World War II, said Willingham, and while they've had a variety of jobs, "it's about saving lives," said Willingham.

"Thousands of service members have come home because of the capabilities of our dogs," Willingham said, "so it's always great to see their actions on the battlefield being recognized."