In this follow-up to Soldier Dogs: The Untold Story of America’s Canine Heroes (2012), Goodavage gives the Marines and their canine companions equal billing.
The story begins with Marine dog handlers spending months learning about “off-leash dog handling,” a specialty of the Israeli military. The dogs would be employed to detect the IEDs being used against American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The combination of a trained dog handler’s ability to spot potential danger areas on the ground and the dog’s prowess at sniffing explosives would prove to be formidable defense against these homemade bombs,” writes the author. The Marines and their dogs would be embedded with infantry, and due to the danger of their mission, the demands on man and dog were huge. Most important was the establishment of a trusting bond between them; any misstep or miscommunication by either could lead to a deadly explosion. The heroes of the story are Lucca, a German shepherd and Belgian Malinois mix who had been born in the Netherlands, and his two handlers. Petting, grooming, feeding, play “and just hanging out” comprised the routine in the months during which handlers and dogs developed a durable bond. An extended training period was necessary since the animals would be “follow[ing] their noses far more independently than leashed dogs.” Lucca’s first trainer and handler was Marine Staff Sgt. Chris Willingham. When his two re-enlistments were completed, Lucca was reassigned to Cpl. Juan “Rod” Rodriguez. After a grievous injury that left him with only three legs, Lucca was released from military service but found a loving home with his first handler. “Over her career,” writes the author in this straightforward account, “she had protected untold numbers of soldiers and marines on four hundred missions with no injuries other than her own.” Lucca was awarded two Purple Hearts for her bravery in action.
This is a sentimental tale of man and dog and their heroism under fire.