Book review: Lucca the War Dog by Maria Goodavage

When a frontline soldier is in a dangerous war zone, carrying a gun and ammunition may not always be his best defence.
Lucca the War Dog by Maria GoodavageLucca the War Dog by Maria Goodavage
Lucca the War Dog by Maria Goodavage

Sometimes his survival can depend on one of the most powerful weapons in the armouries of many modern armies… the elite off-leash sniffer dog.

These highly trained military working dogs have extraordinary skills and their ability to sniff out bombs and other deadly incendiary devices have save thousands of lives in bloody war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan.

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All are heroes… but perhaps one of the most remarkable and heroic of them all is Marine Lucca K458, one of the working dogs trained and deployed by the US Marine Corps K-9 programme, and winner of the prestigious Dickin Medal for bravery in war.

The inspirational Lucca, a beautiful German shepherd and Belgian Malinois cross, served alongside both Special Forces and regular infantry for six years, carried out an incredible 400 missions and became so sought-after that platoons frequently requested her by name.

Lucca’s long and legendary military career with the US Marine Corps ended when she lost a leg in an explosion while on patrol in Afghanistan in 2012 but now the gritty and gripping true story of the unbreakable bond between Lucca and her handlers, and how together they overcame the endless brutalities of war, is set to win hearts all over the world.

Maria Goodavage, author of the bestselling book Soldier Dogs, takes readers on a rollercoaster ride through the life of Lucca and her adventures both on and off the battlefields, including tense, life-saving explosives finds and terrifying rooftop firefights.

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Now living happily in retirement with her first handler Marine Staff Sergeant Chris Willingham and his family in California, Lucca’s tale also reminds us of the crucial importance of these trusty dogs to the military machine and the endless bravery of their handlers.

Although Lucca was born in the Netherlands, she was selected by the US Marine Corps from a military kennels in Israel which specialises in off-leash dog handling. From the moment Willingham was assigned to this beautiful two-year-old dog with large, calm eyes and a mouth that the marine swore was set in a smile, an instant bond was formed.

And Lucca, whose pay cheque was a combination of ‘heartfelt praise’ and ‘a rubber toy,’ was soon top of the class, excelling in obedience, scent work, detection skills and off-the-leash exercises.

She would become one of the army’s best weapons against IEDs (improvised explosive devices), the number one killers of Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, after they were sowed at deadly random across the harsh terrain by Taliban fighters.

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Her best-loved nickname, one of many during her service years, was ‘Mama Lucca,’ a suitably maternal moniker for the dog that became the much-loved recipient of hugs from marines at remote combat outposts who needed comfort at the end of a tough day or when they missed home.

And when Lucca was blown up by an incendiary device on a roadside in Helmand in Afghanistan in 2012, her survival was down to the quick thinking of her second handler, Marine Corporal Juan ‘Rod’ Rodriguez, who applied a tourniquet to her shredded limb, and the helicopter team who whisked her away to the care of a military hospital.

Packed with drama, action and emotion, Lucca the War Dog is an inspirational story of life, death, friendship and the eternal bond between humans and dogs, and a compelling portrait of modern warfare in all its grim reality.

(Ebury, paperback, £6.99)

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