DEC. 29, 2012 UPDATE: Lucca and Christopher Willingham will appear on the Natural Balance “Canines With Courage” float in the 2013 Rose Parade on Jan. 1. “She’s loving the attention; Lucca deserves it,” Cpl. Juan Rodriguez, whose life Lucca saved when she sniffed out a booby trap and lost her leg, told the Los Angeles Times.
The veteran was an 8-year-old Belgian Malinois named Lucca, who was en route to her new furever home.
She was a member of an elite team of search dogs trained to sniff out arms, ammunition and explosives, according to a WGN news report.
While doing just that last March, her left front leg was ripped apart by a buried explosive.
“I heard her squealing and screaming,” her handler, Cpl. Juan Rodriguez, told the Daily Herald. “I went up and gave her first aid and a tourniquet. I petted her to try and keep her calm. It was rough. Nobody else got hurt.”
The injury was so severe that Lucca’s leg had to be amputated.
Before that incident, Lucca had served on more than 400 patrols during two tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. During that time she made confirmed discoveries of more than 40 explosives, probably saving hundreds of lives.
When Lucca arrived at O’Hare last Thursday with Rodriguez, a ceremony was held in the American Airlines terminal. An honor guard of Transportation Security Administration officers then led the two in a parade to a boarding gate. Other travelers saluted the three-legged hero with a standing ovation.
In cooperation with Air Compassion for Veterans, an nonprofit that provides free flights for military personnel who need medical care, American Airlines provided transportation for Lucca and Rodriguez.
The pair’s next destination was Finland, where Lucca was in for a pawesome surprise: Her new dog dad is Marine Gunnery Sgt. Christopher Willingham, who was her original trainer. The two served in Iraq together several years ago.
“This is amazing,” Willingham told a local TV station. “It’s everything I was hoping for.”
Just before he handed her leash over to Willingham, Rodriguez got a kiss from Lucca as well, according to the Daily Herald.
“Before I left to come to Helsinki, I was able to select a handler to take over the leash — I had only one choice, Cpl. Rodriguez,” Willingham said. “He did a phenomenal job and I thank him for saving her life when she was injured.”
Interest in adopting former military dogs has grown ever since Cairo, a Navy SEAL dog, helped take down Osama bin Laden in May 2011. Unfortunately, a federal law classifies military dogs as equipment rather than personnel. Civilian adopters must pay to transport the dogs on commercial flights to the U.S., which can be very costly. Many retiring four-legged war heroes end up being euthanized instead of adopted.
To prevent this, the Canine Members of the Armed Forces Act was introduced in the House of Representatives earlier this year. It would classify military working dogs as members of the Armed Forces instead of equipment, and facilitate their adoption into furever homes.