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Top Dog: The Story of Marine Hero Lucca

Top Dog: The Story of Marine Hero Lucca

by Maria Goodavage


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The New York Times bestselling author of Secret Service Dogs and Soldier Dogs delivers the incredible, true story of K-9 Marine hero Lucca, and the handlers who fought alongside her through two bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Maria Goodavage knocks it out of the park in this fast paced, spell binding page turner" —John W. Pilley, co-author of Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words

Maria Goodavage takes readers into the life of Lucca K458, a decorated and highly skilled military working dog. An extraordinary bond develops between Lucca and Marine Corps dog handlers Chris Willingham and Juan Rodriguez, in what would become a legendary 400-mission career. A specialized search dog, Lucca belongs to an elite group trained to work off-leash at long distances from her handler to sniff out deadly explosives. She served alongside both Special Forces and regular infantry, and became so sought-after that platoons frequently requested her by name.

Here, in gritty detail, is the gripping account of Lucca's adventures on and off the battlefields, including tense, lifesaving explosives finds and rooftop firefights, as well as the bravery of fellow handlers and dogs they served with. Ultimately we see how the bond between Lucca and her handlers overcame the endless brutalities of war and the traumas such violence can inflict.

Top Dog is a portrait of modern warfare with a heartwarming and inspiring conclusion that will touch dog lovers and the toughest military readers.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451467102
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/01/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 210,904
Product dimensions: 8.20(w) x 5.40(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Maria Goodavage is a veteran journalist and the New York Times bestselling author of Secret Service DogsTop Dog, and Soldier Dogs. She lives in San Francisco with her family and yellow Lab, Gus Kilroy.

Read an Excerpt


Line of Duty


Thirty Feet Ahead

MARINE CORPORAL JUAN “Rod” Rodriguez crunched across the dry farm field, his right hand resting on the M4 strapped to his chest. He kept clear of the path that meandered through hard clumps of dirt that looked nothing like the rich soil of his New England roots. The road less traveled—ideally, no road at all—was the safest from homemade bombs sowed by the Taliban. This was the Nahri Saraj District, in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand River valley, and a war unlike those of previous generations.

Rod watched his dog, a German shepherd–Belgian Malinois mix, who was thirty feet ahead and inspecting the land for IEDs. His eyes swept the area, keeping watch for anything suspicious. Unlike much of the agricultural land around here, this field was barren, not a sea of young poppies a month away from opium harvest. Furrows here and there hinted at past crops, but it was mostly flat, which made for easy maneuvering. In the distance, a compound, a tree line, and farther out, some worn-down old mountains.

Rod continued walking and observing. He could see his dog trotting with purpose, nose down, tail up, knowing just what to do. It was March 23, 2012, just one month shy of her sixth anniversary as a marine. With two deployments behind her, she was an old pro at the business of sniffing improvised explosive devices while off leash. “Good girl, Mama Lucca,” he said under his breath.

Lucca Bear. Lucca Pie. Bearcat Jones. Mama Lucca. The twelve Special Forces soldiers had come to know military working dog Lucca K458 by all the nicknames Rod used for her—the terms of endearment she had inspired during her career. She had led more than four hundred missions, and no one had gotten hurt by an IED when they were with her.

Mama Lucca was the name that had stuck lately. She was the only one at their remote combat outpost the Green Berets felt comfortable hugging after a tough day or when they missed home. She was more experienced than some of the soldiers, and the maternal moniker was a natural fit.

Rod saw Lucca moving close to the narrow dirt path. “Lucca, come!” he called. She paused for a beat, looked at him, and kept sniffing. That wasn’t normal. She almost always listened. But Rod could sense she was onto something. He didn’t want to distract her, so he let her continue, watching her intently in case he needed to steer her clear of suspicious-looking spots. She walked back and forth, nose to the ground, and every few steps she turned more quickly, as she traced the scent to its point of origin. Lucca’s luxuriant tail gave a few high, quick wags, looking momentarily like a victory flag. She stopped and stared at Rod.

He got the message, automatically imagining her words. Hey, Dad, got one right here. He called her back and praised her with his voice an octave higher than normal. “Good girl, Lucca!” He patted her side a few times but left the Kong in his cargo pocket because throwing a rubber reward in a place like this was a bad idea.

“Ben,” he called to the engineer, who was close behind. “Lucca just responded, right there.” He pointed to the spot with four fingers extended together.

“’K, we’ll take care of it,” Ben said. “Nice work, Mama Lucca.”

Rod shifted their course to the left to keep Lucca away from the IED and the trail. She trotted ahead for about twenty-five feet, spun around, and headed back toward him. Rod kept close watch, realizing she may have locked onto the scent of another explosive. Where there’s one, there’s often at least one more.

The cloud of gray smoke erupted before Rod heard the explosion. A scream pierced through the boom, and a sickening thud followed. Rod couldn’t see Lucca through the thick mass that hung in the air. He shouted, “No!” and squeezed his helmet hard between his hands, hoping he’d wake up from every dog handler’s worst nightmare. Radios around him buzzed into a frenzy, but he didn’t hear words, just felt the surge of adrenaline that instantly made Lucca his sole focus.

As the curtain of debris curled away, he could make out his dog. She had dragged herself up and was standing, dazed, alive. Rod dashed toward her. He didn’t think about the IEDs that could be between him and her. Lucca could take only a few unsteady steps before Rod reached her. He leaned down and swept her up in his arms, trying not to notice the smell of her burned fur and flesh.

Snipers struck at times like this. Rod wanted to run to the tree line with his dog to hide her from them, but the blood poured from her leg and he couldn’t take a chance she would bleed out.

He laid her on the ground and ripped a combat application tourniquet from just inside his flak jacket. They were in easy reach. He could grab a tourniquet and apply it with one hand to save his own life or anyone else’s.

The blood streamed, and the soil softened under Lucca. He saw clearly now that her left paw and a few inches above it had been torn away in the blast, exposing the bone, muscle, and tendons of her midleg. It was like something out of the dog anatomy images Rod and his classmates had studied in canine school, only with an alarming coat of red. Lucca panted hard, whimpering quietly every few breaths.

Focus, focus, Rod told himself. He wrapped the tourniquet strap around her shoulder, twisted the plastic stick. The bleeding slowed. Good. He picked her up again and cradled her close. She melted into him, relaxing as he ran with her to the tree line sixty feet away. He gently placed her down again, and the Green Berets pulled security around them, weapons and eyes facing outward, protecting the dog team.

Rod grabbed another tourniquet and positioned it closer to Lucca’s injury. She had bled all over his pants as he carried her. “An extra tourniquet never killed anyone, right, Lucca?” He secured it.

Scott, an 18-Delta medic, ran over. Rod drew his first conscious breath since the explosion. Special Forces medics are some of the most experienced and efficient medical trauma technicians in the world, and veterinary care is one of their many areas of expertise. Scott checked the tourniquets and injected Lucca in the thigh with a dose of morphine. Her panting slowed, her body relaxed, but she remained aware, eyes open. They checked out the burns on her neck, chest, and face and bandaged her leg and shoulder. Scott took a Sharpie from his aid bag and wrote 1400 on the time tag of the upper tourniquet.

Lucca shifted her gaze to the sky. Rod looked and saw the medevac helicopter chopping its way toward them. The Black Hawk landed just far enough away that the wash didn’t disturb Lucca. They loaded her up, and Rod got in.

Special Forces Sergeant Jake Parker turned around briefly from his lookout and gave his friend a thumbs-up. Rod returned it, and the Black Hawk rose straight up and headed east toward Camp Leatherneck.

Goddamned IEDs, Parker thought as the helicopter disappeared and the farmland became silent. That dog had better not die.


First in Class

THE FAMILIAR SMELL of dogs and disinfectant cleanser greeted Marine Staff Sergeant Chris Willingham as he and four other Americans walked into the kennel in Israel. From the dead silence just moments before, a cacophony of barks erupted and bounced off the concrete walls like something dangerous. Only it wasn’t. Willingham liked the sound, the warm exuberance.

He was used to riotous canine greetings from his years at much larger military kennels stateside. Back at Lackland Air Force Base, the heart of the U.S. Military Working Dog Program, the barking came from dozens of dogs at a time—a heavy-metal band with treble and base on max volume. He had spent the last three years there training dogs and instructing handlers and before that was a dog handler at Camp Lejeune. The Israel-based canine ensemble, while far smaller than those he’d worked with in the U.S., still provided the rush he got from entering a military dog kennel.

April 23, 2006. This was the day he had been looking forward to since arriving in Tel Aviv a couple of weeks earlier. At his side was longtime dog handler Staff Sergeant Kristopher Knight, Willingham’s close marine pal, who was also a trainer and instructor at Lackland and played a mean game of Texas Hold’em with him and the other handlers on Friday nights. Two other marine dog handlers, Sergeant Rob Bowker and Sergeant Christopher Baity, and the U.S. Marine Corps K-9 program manager, William Childress, rounded out the canine contingent that traveled halfway around the world to learn about off-leash dog handling from the people who did it best.

They had landed in Israel just before Passover week, which turned out to be a bad time to deal with the government documents and official paperwork required for their visit. Not that they had any complaints about a few extra days at the Isrotel Tower hotel, with its sweeping views of the Mediterranean and its beachfront location. The hotel was close to the U.S. Embassy, which was the reason they’d been booked there, but that wasn’t high up on the handlers’ list of favorite features.

As much as Willingham was enjoying Tel Aviv, he was ready to immerse himself in the world of dogs as soon as everything was good to go. He missed them. He’d been working with military dogs intensively for the last six years and he wasn’t looking for a break. The drive to the headquarters of Oketz, the elite K-9 unit of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), would take only a half hour when they finally got the paperwork squared away. So close, yet so far. He was eager to get to a place where he could once again speak his native tongue: dog.

Oketz had been producing excellent bomb-detection dogs trained to work off leash. In the U.S., these canines, known as specialized search dogs (SSDs), were fairly new additions to the four-legged forces. The U.S. Department of Defense wanted a few top American handlers to learn how to train and work with these dogs. Childress had sought out four seasoned handlers to go to Israel for an intensive eight-month specialized search dog program designed specifically for the Americans. The handlers needed to be sergeant or above, with a solid foundation of military dog knowledge. This would make it easier to absorb and apply the techniques being taught and to go back to the U.S. and train other dog teams.

And now the handpicked marines were about to meet the dogs who would be at their sides for the next few years. Most likely, months at a time would be spent in the IED-infested streets, compounds, and rural areas of Iraq—just a few hundred miles east of here. Their lives and the lives of countless others could depend on these dogs and on the extensive training the teams would receive during the next eight months.

Willingham’s heart rate amped up as their head instructor, an IDF dog trainer of Russian origin named Michael (Mi-kie-el), unfolded the paper that would reveal the results of his matchmaking.

“Knight, you’ve got Rocky. Baity, you have Rona. Bowker, Yona is yours. Willingham, you get Lucca.”

Four simple sentences, the die cast.

“You’ve got five minutes. Go meet your dogs,” he told them.

The men surveyed their new partners. Three barked in steady rhythms. The two loudest whirled round incessantly, pausing only briefly to catch eye contact with whoever glanced their way.

The fourth dog stood wagging a resplendent auburn tail, not saying a word, her slightly open mouth set in what Willingham swore was a smile, as if pleased, even delighted.

“Lucca!” Willingham entered her kennel and knelt down beside her. Lucca wagged harder and her back half wriggled with excitement while she inspected the man before her. Taller than most she had met, muscular, shaved head, beaming smile.

Willingham stroked her head and neck while looking over his new partner. German shepherd and Belgian Malinois in one dog. The best of both worlds, if the mix settles right. Hard to tell where one breed began and the other ended, but she was a beaut. And those eyes. He’d never seen anything like them before on any breed. She seemed to have real eyebrows, small, dark, and deeply expressive while they danced over her large, calm eyes. A charcoal line went from the outside corners of her eyes all the way back to her ears, like a smoky cat eye in heavy pencil, and she had a little black beauty mark on each cheek. From each mark grew three long whiskers.

“All right, Lucca, you ready to do this thing? I’m Chris. We’re about to start this journey. I have no idea what the future entails, what tomorrow is about, but I’m really excited you’re my dog.”

Her tail swept out widely, from side to side. He noticed that the very end of her tail was black. It reminded him of an old story his mamaw had once told him about a boy dipping a girl’s braids in an inkwell.




School began early the next morning. The dogs, it turned out, hadn’t received any training, at least none that was noticeable. Lucca couldn’t even sit when Willingham asked her—no matter what language he tried.

IDF canine experts had purchased the dogs during a recent trip to Europe. The dogs were all about two years old and came from breeders known for producing quality working dogs. The U.S. Military Working Dog Program gets most of its dogs from Europe as well. In countries like the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and Germany, working dog sports have been going strong for up to a century, so there’s an abundance of dogs bred for the kind of work military and police dogs do every day. The breeders and the vendors who raise them don’t generally put much into training the dogs. They figure that’s best left to the countries that buy them.

Lucca’s home country was the Netherlands. Even though the Dutch and German words for sitzit and sitz, respectively—are almost twins to the English word, he tried both languages in case some nuance of the word made her recognize it. But Lucca, Willingham’s little Dutch girl, just stood there wagging. The lack of training didn’t surprise the Americans. It’s often best when a dog is a blank slate. That’s how the U.S. military buys them: more raw material than ready-to-wear. The tailoring is up to the trainers and handlers.

The first several days together would be all about building rapport. Standard procedure. The sergeants-turned-students knew that rapport was everything. Without it, a dog won’t work, or at least won’t work reliably. When you’re searching for homemade bombs in war-torn countries, halfhearted detection doesn’t cut it. The dog has to want to work, has to crave that K-9 paycheck—a combination of heartfelt praise from a handler and a rubber toy such as a Kong or tennis ball.

What struck the Americans as unusual was that this bond would initially be forged over food. “For the next week, you are going to feed the dogs by hand,” Michael announced. Willingham and Knight looked at each other, eyebrows raised. This was a new tactic for making friends out of military dogs. In the U.S., using food to train military dogs was the sign of a lazy handler or an unmotivated dog. But they figured that if Oketz did it, there had to be something to it. So the handlers measured their dogs’ kibble and doled it out on walks and during early training on basic skills.

Bonding wasn’t all about chow. The marines spent hours every day playing with their dogs, petting them, grooming them, and just hanging out. “This is the best job in the world,” Willingham told Lucca while brushing her long auburn and black coat after they’d chased each other around outside for an hour or so.

In a few days, the handlers introduced Kongs to their dogs. The hard red or black rubber toys, shaped in the fashion of small snowmen someone had squashed a bit from the top, are ubiquitous in the military dog world. They’re the ultimate reward for many dogs—eminently chewable, virtually indestructible, and with an off-kilter bounce that resembles wild prey on the run.

Lucca quickly became obsessed with the Kong. When the toy appeared, everything else disappeared, including Willingham. She didn’t seem to hear him or see him when she was chomping on the red rubber, eyes semiclosed in bliss. “Meet me halfway, Lucca,” he implored one day when she was facing away from him with her jaws wrapped around the Kong, refusing to look at him. “We gotta get past this.”

He had an idea. A chunk of her paycheck was guaranteed: his affection and enthusiastic praise. She could have that anytime she did something good, and it would last a long time. Even when the words died down, she could sense Willingham’s pride and approval. But the Kong was a commodity that came and went quickly. She earned it, enjoyed it for less than a minute, and had to give it back. Who wants to give back a paycheck?

Willingham decided to stretch out Lucca’s paycheck in hopes she wouldn’t be so grabby with it. When it came time to take back the Kong, he tossed another Kong. She’d run for it, bring it back, and he’d throw the other Kong out. Revolving credit! Paychecks everywhere! The canine version of supply-side economics worked. With the Kong commodity less rare, Lucca learned that the guy throwing these toys was a valuable guy to know.

“LUCKY BASTARD, YOU’VE got the best dog here,” Knight told Willingham a month later, as they settled into their cots in a room they shared near the kennel.

“My Shepinois is pretty amazing,” Willingham replied, and smiled like a proud dad. After the bumpy start, Lucca was at the head of her class—excelling in basic obedience and some scent work.

Knight rubbed his neck in a vain attempt to keep a stress headache at bay. It had been another tough day. He had at least four years more military dog experience than the other handlers and was well-known as an exemplary trainer who could “talk dog.” Naturally, Michael matched him with the most challenging dog of the four.

If dogs could have attention deficit disorder, Rocky—an angular Malinois with giant bat-like ears that looked like they belonged on another, much larger dog—had it bad. The behavior issue had come to a head earlier that day when Knight and his Malinois were training together in a field near the kennels. Spring was in the air, and butterflies occasionally winged by. When this happened, Rocky stopped whatever he was doing, turned his head toward the fluttering insect, and watched it as it looped about and eventually flew out of sight.

Getting through to Rocky during these reveries was futile. Rocky was in his own world. It took several minutes for Knight to get Rocky back on task after the butterfly left the scene. This would never do in combat. Not at all. Knight had a few months to get Rocky on board. It would be an intensive training challenge.

Butterflies were the least of it, though. What took Rocky out of the game for days were female dogs in heat. Female Oketz dogs don’t get spayed, unlike American military dogs. The rationale is that the male Oketz dogs are going to be dealing with a lot of unspayed female dogs in third world countries. They have to learn to ignore those tempting calls of the wild. But when any of Rocky’s three gal pals were in heat, he was a dog undone. He couldn’t function. He drooled. His mouth chattered. He couldn’t focus on Knight.

“You look like a fool, boy,” Knight told him as he brought Rocky back to his kennel to chill.

If Rocky were the only dog Knight had to train, that would have been enough work. But he was just half the equation. Earlier that month, Michael told the marines that someone among them should take on another dog, in case one of theirs didn’t pass the rigorous training standards.

“What about this one?” Knight said, pointing to a Belgian Tervuren, who looked like a very furry German shepherd with a dark head, in a kennel next to theirs. “He’s already here in the kennel. I can take him on starting tomorrow.”

“No, no, no! You don’t want Bram [rhymes with mom].”

“What’s wrong with him?”

“He’s crazy! Craaazy,” he said in his thick Russian accent. “He doesn’t listen to anyone. He’s one of the rare untrainable ones.”

Bram, now standing at attention in his kennel, looked as if he were intent on listening to the conversation.

“Untrainable? No dog is untrainable,” Knight said with a cocky chuckle. He gave a nod in the direction of Bram. “We’ll take that dog.”

A month later, Knight was having serious second thoughts about his proclamation.

Although Bram wasn’t being trained as a protection dog, he liked to bite—people, the ceiling of his kennel, anything that moved and anything that didn’t move. While searching, the dog bit chunks of grass out of the ground.

The bars of Tel Aviv provided Knight with the kind of setting he needed to talk Bram troubles with Willingham. One Saturday evening, after another challenging week with Bram, the two sat at the popular club, Whisky a Go Go, drinks in hand.

“He’s pissed off for having to do what I command him to do versus what he wants to do,” Knight said loudly, above the noise of the crowd. It felt good to shout about this dog.

“He’s a tough one, man,” Willingham said.

“Bram always thinks he knows what’s best for Bram,” Knight said, and took a long draft from his glass of Red Bull and vodka.

During detection exercises, instead of calmly walking or trotting to sniff out explosives, Bram raced counterclockwise full speed with his body tilted at a forty-five-degree angle. Sometimes he stopped, picked up a thick log or other fascinating object, and ran back to Knight with it.

One day after detecting an explosive, Bram scooped up the block of C-4 and, head raised high with pride in his find, galloped back to Knight. The explosive was falling apart from the pressure of his teeth when he delivered it to his handler.

“You hairy bastard!” Knight said, standing in disbelief as Bram dropped it at his feet. “Are you trying to kill me?”

Knight knew the explosive was a highly stable one that even Bram’s mouth couldn’t detonate, but he figured Bram didn’t know that.

At least Bram didn’t share Rocky’s love of the ladies. He didn’t even seem to notice when they went into heat. But he did have a one-track mind. “If you could read his thoughts,” Knight told Willingham, “it would be ‘Kong! Kong! Kong! Kong! Kong! Kong! Kong! Kong!’”

Knight often lay awake at night, trying to figure out ways to deal with this dog. He’d trained many dozens of dogs in his military career, but nothing had prepared him for Bram. Could Michael be right? Maybe. But he couldn’t give up on Bram. He could just hear Michael, with his Russian accent, admonishing him. “You see? The dog is crazy! Craaazy! I told you so!”

Failure wasn’t an option.

THE BEAUTY OF specialized search dogs is that they can follow their noses far more independently than leashed dogs. There’s a wide consensus in the military that the noses of dogs, especially the long-snouted breeds commonly used for detection work, are unbeatable when it comes to finding bombs. A good nose on a well-trained dog who has bonded with a great handler is a formidable weapon against bad guys who plant IEDs in the fields and roadways of war. Being able to trust a dog to do the job off leash is a significant force multiplier.

In the years following Vietnam—a war in which dogs were put to use as sentries, scouts, and mine detectors, and then, tragically, left behind or euthanized when the war was over—bomb-dog work shifted focus. These dogs became used primarily for ensuring base safety, supporting the State Department and the Secret Service with special events, and being on call for emergency explosives-detection work.

But after the U.S. put boots on the ground in Iraq, all that changed. In 2003, the Defense Department announced that a young soldier, Army Private First Class Jeremiah D. Smith, died after his vehicle was “hit by unexploded ordnance.” It was an unintentional oxymoron that revealed the military’s lack of experience in this deadly new type of warfare that was about to unfold.

Soon after Smith’s death, these explosives began taking a noticeable toll on U.S. troops. The term improvised explosive device and its acronym, IED, readily worked their way into military and civilian parlance. Al-Qaeda operatives saw that these relatively cheap and easy-to-make explosives could do the kind of damage to coalition forces that the operatives could never dream of doing in traditional combat. There was no predicting it at that time, but IEDs would become the number one killer of American troops in two wars, in Iraq and then Afghanistan.

The U.S. needed a weapon to combat these new killers.

The specialized off-leash bomb dogs got the call.

Experts usually concurred that no machine could compare with the nose of a dog for detecting IEDs. 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 a formidable defense against these homemade bombs. With some extra training to acclimate them to new scents and the types of environments they’d encounter, bomb dogs were ready for the battlefield.

Most military dogs went to war on leash and still do. But a couple of years after the initial canine involvement in Iraq, leaders in the military dog world got a prototype of the specialized search dog program up and running.

Specialized search dogs learn commands like forward, left, and right and work in tandem with a handler. They listen to the handler, watch for hand and arm signals—well-trained dogs are aces at responding to these visual commands—and let their own noses take over when they’re in the right spot. They can work at distances of a few hundred yards from their handlers when they wear radios in their harness pockets. At that distance handlers aren’t able to scan the area the dog is working as well as they normally do. Signs of IEDs are more likely to go unnoticed by the human. But this distance work is a sometimes critical military dog tactic that requires unusual skill.

These canines have to be smart, dedicated, focused, and very well trained. If standard military working dogs have bachelor’s degrees, specialized search dogs have PhDs.

After a few more months of SSD training, Lucca was still the clear top dog of her class. Sometimes she’d confuse right and left, but who doesn’t? “No, Lucca, left,” Willingham would tell her gently if she went off course to the right. And off to the left she’d go. She aced nearly every skill, quickly. Obedience, scent training, detection, off-leash work. Lucca made it look easy. And she remained unruffled regardless of the task.

Lucca excelled at off-leash detection. Whether in the dry hills covered with brown weeds and dotted with craggy rocks, the forests of tall trees with spindly trunks, on the hot roadsides, or around small structures reminiscent of what they’d find if they deployed to Iraq, she seemed happy and at ease doing her searches. Even on the hottest days, she had a spring in her gait that made her look like a dog enjoying a jaunt in a park. When she found an explosive, her tail went crazy, and Willingham could see that same smile she’d worn the day they met.

When other dogs might go off focus, Lucca always seemed to stay on task. She could find a small amount of explosives scent far from Willingham while he used subtle hand signals to direct her where he thought the explosive could be, based on environmental cues. A little mound of rocks here, a haystack there, some scrapes in the ground where scrapes shouldn’t be. She never balked on strange surfaces or at loud noises, and she checked in frequently, turning around and glancing at Willingham to make sure she was going the way he intended and changing direction when she needed to. Willingham was in awe of her talents and dedication and felt the kind of pride he imagined fathers feel when their children excel.

But something was eating at Willingham. One reason the off-leash skills of specialized search dogs are so valuable is the standoff distance they create between the bomb and those out on a mission. If an off-leash dog accidentally sets off an IED while sniffing for one, the humans on the mission could well be safe from the blast. The dog, however, would likely perish.

Willingham understood the need to keep everyone out of harm’s way. One of the reasons he joined the marines was to keep others as safe as he could. He figured it was genetic. He came from a long line of military men. Lucca was becoming a fellow marine in his eyes, someone he would look out for as she looked out for him. “We’re a team, Lucca,” he told her as he sat next to her during a break one afternoon. He didn’t tell her what he was thinking: I hope you’ll never have to take a bomb for me.

BY THE TIME their six months of training in Israel wrapped up, all the dog teams had made significant progress. Even Rocky and Bram had moved out of remedial education and seemed to have a fairly bright future as specialized search dogs. They were still works in progress, but they were ready for the next step.

They flew off to the U.S. for more fine-tuned training. But first the dogs had to go through the canine equivalent of military induction at Lackland. They all got an operation called a gastropexy, in which the lining of the stomach is stitched to the abdominal wall in order to prevent fatal stomach twisting in cases of bloat. The female dogs were spayed, and all the dogs got identification numbers tattooed inside their left ear while they were still anesthetized. Lucca’s was K458, a number that seared into Willingham’s memory immediately. It was like her last name. Lucca Kilo 458.

After the dogs recovered, the teams headed to Yuma Proving Ground, in Arizona. One of the Oketz trainers met the dogs and handlers there for seventy-three days of training in an environment very similar to Iraq—from the climate to the terrain to mock Iraq-style buildings, and the loud gunfire, rocket, and mortar simulations.

The dogs and handlers polished skills they’d learned in Israel, taking them to the next level and building confidence while working in realistic scenarios. The teams may have done roadway searches a few dozen times each, but more practice meant they’d be ready for almost anything they faced in war. The handlers worked on tasks as seemingly simple as getting their dogs around a bend in the road and taking advantage of wind currents in a variety of settings. The skills had to be ingrained so they were second nature.

The marines stayed at the Best Western while their dogs stayed at the Yuma Proving Ground kennels, which were set up open-air fashion, with no walls, just a high roof. Sleeping in their kennels after a hard day’s work, the dogs were vulnerable to dangerous critters that might crawl out of the desert, so the handlers had to take turns spending the night in the office beside the kennels. Every four hours, whoever had kennel duty would pry himself from his cot and check the dogs to make sure they weren’t suffering from spider or snake bites. The four handlers were relieved when a class of about a dozen specialized search dog students came in from Lackland for their own training and took on their overnight shifts.

All five dogs from Israel were doing very well, but Lucca, working in perfect synch with Willingham, and dedicated to whatever he asked of her, was still the class star. So when it came time to do a demo for the Lackland students, Willingham figured his confidence in her was well placed. “We’re gonna smash this, Lucca,” he told her quietly. “You’ve been a freakin’ robot at distances a lot farther than this.”

The demo involved a detection problem that led to a dry creek bed. Lucca had to walk down the deeper part of the creek bed, which ran about four feet below the surrounding sand and dry dirt. The former creek was about eight feet wide, leaving plenty of room for a comfortable passage. Willingham’s subtle voice commands and hand signals from no more than a hundred yards away would guide her through to the other side, where the creek bed disappeared and came back to ground level. It would be like threading a needle. As she approached the end, she would be greeted by an explosives scent that would make her day, and all the students would witness the kind of skill and teamwork they could aspire to if they kept at it.

At least that was the idea.

At first, Lucca moved perfectly to Willingham’s signals for left, right, and forward. But when she approached the place where she had to follow the creek bed, instead of going straight in, she went left. She went right. She would not go forward into it. It was as if it was still filled with water and she was scared of water. (She wasn’t, of course.) No matter what Willingham did, the needle would not be threaded.

He realized Lucca needed a little time to rest and reset. He didn’t want her to get any more frustrated than she must have already been. He walked about fifty yards toward her and told her, gently, “Lucca, down.” She lay down. A few minutes later, he told her, “Lucca, forward,” signaled forward with his right hand, and waited to see what she’d do.

Much to Willingham’s relief, this time she nailed it. She walked straight down the creek bed, and as she approached the other side, she caught the scent of the explosive and beelined her way toward it, sniffing the ground intently all the way. Her tail fanned fast, making it clear to everyone watching that she was over the moon about this latest discovery. She sniffed some more, lay down, and stared at the spot where the explosive was buried. The students from Lackland cheered; Willingham loved her up and gave her her Kong. He vowed to himself that if he ever started getting too big for his britches, he’d remember this demo.

All four handlers and five dogs passed the four-day certification test in mid-December. They had to do vehicle searches, roadway searches, and compound searches. Handlers had to show clearly that they could read their dogs, and dogs had to demonstrate commitment to the tasks and a certain focus, regardless of distance from their handlers. They had all finished by Friday, and that night they celebrated over steaks and beers.

The Lackland students were heading back by bus a couple of days before Willingham had planned to go home to San Antonio. He badly missed his wife, Jill, so he hitched a ride with them.

Jill hadn’t started vacation yet from nursing school, but she cleared her schedule as well as she could to be with her husband as much as possible. As many years as she’d known him, she loved spending time with him. They had been together since high school, well before he was a marine. He was reserved back then, but she saw the change in him after he became a marine, and especially when he became a dog handler. “He found his calling, and he found his voice,” she told a friend. “He’s got the kind of personality that puts people at ease and just draws them in. I just love that about him.”

He had two weeks off before going back to Lackland, where he would meet up with Lucca and keep her proficient, and only two months before heading to Camp Lejeune for predeployment preparations. During his time at home, Jill made him his favorite meal, spaghetti, as much as she could stomach. She tried to vary the sauces for her sake, but spaghetti with the same sauce could be on the menu every night and her husband would be content.

For Christmas, he surprised Jill with diamond earrings. They were simple three-quarter-carat stud earrings, princess cut. She put them in her ears and fell in love with the sparkle.

Nine months later, their first child would be born.

But Willingham wouldn’t be there for the occasion. He would be several months into his deployment to Iraq with Lucca—his first deployment in his career. Knight would be heading over, too, for his first deployment, and had decided to take Bram instead of Rocky because he didn’t think anyone else could handle Bram. He bequeathed Rocky to another handler.

Jill gave her husband a small cross made of two shiny silver nails, which she found at James Avery Jewelry in San Antonio. She liked it because it was both rugged and something she hoped might keep him safe. Willingham bought a chain for it so he could wear it around his neck every day in Iraq.

Shortly before he left for the war, his parents drove from Tuscaloosa and visited him at Camp Lejeune, where he was spending a few weeks preparing for deployment. His father presented him with the dog tags he had worn during his nightmarish time as a marine in Vietnam. Attached to the dog tags was a crucifix. Willingham’s father had connected these two potent objects thirty-seven years earlier while in Vietnam.

“I wore these during every patrol, and I want you to have them for your deployment,” his dad told him. “I came back in one piece with these. You will, too. Your dog will see to it.”


A BADASS in Baghdad

THIS THING’S GONNA fly? Really?” Knight said to Willingham as they walked toward the hulking C-5 Galaxy transport plane at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina. “All the way to Iraq?”

“That’s what they tell me,” Willingham said, squinting into the sun as he checked out the huge gray aircraft that would fly them sixty-four hundred miles to their deployment.

The C-5 looked like some kind of odd and gigantic mythological creature. A winged shark came to mind. Its enormous nose was hinged open all the way up to let in helicopters and other cargo. With its nose cone pointing straight up to the sky, and the body of the plane wide open from the front, it appeared the cargo was being more devoured than loaded. The wings of the plane angled downward slightly, making it look like it had grown a little weary of all these heavy-duty cargo missions.

The handlers walked with Lucca and Bram up the metal loading ramp and into the belly of the beast. Neither dog balked at the loud noises of metal clanging on metal, workers shouting to one another, and the low drone of the engine. Lucca never seemed to get nervous, and Bram . . . Knight figured he was probably just contemplating Kongs.

They needed to load up the dogs and get upstairs to the passenger area, so they found the wooden palettes that held their gear—backpacks, duffel bags, five-gallon buckets of dog food, and two portable kennel crates. The dogs sniffed the contents of the palette, and Willingham bent down and opened the door of Lucca’s crate. She walked right in, made a U-turn at the back of the crate, and lay down facing the opening. She was already a veteran of crate travel.

“You ready for your big trip, Lucca? Just take a nice long nap. We’ll come visit you in a while.” She watched him as he spoke, and he was pretty sure she understood.

Knight settled Bram into his crate, close to Lucca’s, and with the help of cargo workers, they made sure everything on the palettes was cinched down securely with tie-down straps. They made their way up the metal ladder to the seating area.

TWO HOURS INTO the flight, Willingham sat on the windowless workhorse, knees jammed into a seatback pocket overflowing with a bulky yellow flotation device, a packet of survival equipment, an empty juice box, Lucca’s leather leash, and a crumpled paper bag from lunch. He and Knight each had a full row of seats to themselves across the aisle from each other on the transport plane.

Big as it was, they were surprised the plane had only a few passengers. Willingham liked that. It was almost as if he, Lucca, Knight, and Bram were getting their own private flight into war. Willingham and Knight hadn’t taken advantage of the ability to stretch out. Instead, they sat up—never mind the knees—and talked like two excited kids on their way to their first camping trip. The old friends had not only gone through the Oketz training together, but here they were, on the same plane, going to war at the same time. Even though they’d known for a few months that they’d be deploying together, they still felt lucky.

They soared thirty-five thousand feet over the earth on a high of jokes, BS’ing, bomb detection, sports, ballbusting, family stories, BS’ing about friends, and more plain BS’ing. And dogs.

“Time to check on Bram and Mama Lucca?” Willingham asked Knight when the flurry of conversation eventually died down.

“Let’s go see our daooogs!” Knight said, reaching for Bram’s leash.

The crew chief escorted them to the metal ladder leading down to the cavernous cargo area. The dogs sat up in their crates when they saw who was coming their way.

Bram’s welcoming barks echoed off the plane’s rounded walls. Both dogs wagged enthusiastically when they were sprung from their kennels. Lucca stretched as if she had all the time in the world. It was a ten-hour flight, so her timing was fine.

“Mama Lucca! How’s the flight?” Willingham leaned down to rub her ears and the sides of her head. She drew in a deep breath and let it out in a contented puff, her eyes slightly closed.

“Hey, Lucca, you want to take a walk?” He leashed up and joined Knight and Bram, who were already partway down the length of the plane’s belly. The usual business associated with dog walks had to wait. The dogs had relieved themselves just before boarding, and military dogs, who tend to be frequent flyers, seem to know the routine.

“This plane’s a beast!” boomed Knight. Bram seconded with a single bark. Lucca didn’t join the conversation.

After a few minutes, they gave their dogs just enough water but not too much, settled them back into their kennel crates, and promised to visit every couple of hours, which they did.

“YOU KNOW WHAT today is?” Willingham asked Knight as they walked with their dogs to the kennel building at Camp Slayer, part of the sprawling Victory Base Complex of military installations surrounding the Baghdad International Airport. They’d had a couple of hours to settle into their rooms with their dogs—who would be their roommates—and were anxious to see the kennels. They wouldn’t be leaving Lucca and Bram in the kennels, though. That was just where they were going so they could talk dog.

“What’s today?” Knight repeated the question. “Uh, the day we arrived in Baghdad?”

“Yup, but it’s also Lucca’s and my anniversary.” Lucca snapped her head toward him when she heard her name. “Exactly one year ago they assigned us to each other. Can you believe that? To the day!”

“Well, happy anniversary, and here’s to many more.” Knight raised an imaginary glass. He would have to wait another week or so for his and Bram’s anniversary, and he wasn’t sure he’d feel like celebrating. The dog still had some kinks to work out.

When they’d left the States, it still felt like spring, but on this Baghdad morning in late April, the thermometer was well on its way to a high of one hundred degrees. As they walked down the narrow paved road, joking with each other about who had more of a radiant glow, they were surprised at how built-up the place was, especially in the distance. They could see buildings they thought were palaces or mansions, with one that rested on the edge of a man-made lake and looked like the top of an exotic bottle of perfume. It was within sight of the low concrete structure housing the kennel, which was located in a fairly isolated section of Camp Slayer. The kennel faced a large field of dry weeds with dirt roads going off into nowhere and was flanked by a thick palm grove on one side and a concrete canal lined with reeds on the other. Perfect for a little reality-based scent training.

They were greeted by Army Private First Class Kory Wiens, whose big smile pushed at his dimples. He wore his dark brown hair shaved close on the sides, longer and thick on top. Willingham noticed a few drops of water on his hair. Wiens told them he was spraying down the kennels. Felt like being useful and not just sitting around on his off hours.

He showed them around the dogs’ quarters. Lucca and Bram sniffed briskly until they got the olfactory lowdown. Dogs barked at them. Bram barked at the dogs. Lucca walked through without interjecting.

“Anything you guys need, just let me know,” Wiens said.

“We’d love a tour of the whole area,” Knight said.

“You got it. Let’s start with the chow hall.” They headed out into the bright afternoon until Wiens stopped and held up his index finger.

“Wait, I’ve got someone for you to meet first, if you don’t mind,” Wiens said, and grinned. “My son. Just a minute, OK?”

Willingham and Knight knew that a guy this young—what, nineteen, twenty tops?—couldn’t have a son. Well he could, but not here, in the middle of a war-torn country. Probably not, anyway. It was all new to them.

He returned a couple of minutes later. “Here he is! This is my son, Cooper!”

Willingham looked down and saw a yellow Labrador retriever—a fairly standard-issue military breed for handlers whose dogs don’t have to put the hurt on someone. Since Cooper was also a specialized search dog, there was nothing in his job description about biting the bad guy. He had long, lean features and a tail that wagged briskly when he discovered Lucca and Bram. Wiens called him over and faux wrestled his dog for a few seconds, ending with a vigorous fur rub up and down Cooper’s back. Willingham couldn’t tell who was smiling more broadly, dog or handler.

“Beautiful Lab,” Knight said.

“Thanks. Best dog in the world,” Wiens said. He glanced at Lucca and Bram and chuckled. “Well, to me, anyway.”

Lucca stepped up to Cooper and sniffed her new acquaintance in the highly personal way all dogs do. He sniffed her right back. They circled around in a slow canine do-si-do, noses extended under tails. Bram didn’t introduce himself. He watched for a few seconds and lost interest. Knight knew he was only thinking of one thing, and it wasn’t new friends.

Suddenly Lucca whirled around to face Cooper and lowered her front half, tail wagging like mad high in the air, inviting him to play.

“Yeah, Lucca!” Willingham laughed. “You like deployment, don’t you?”

Table of Contents

Part 1 Line of Duty

1 Thirty Feet Ahead 3

2 First in Class 9

3 A BADASS in Baghdad 27

Part 2 The Heat is on

4 Hey, a Dog! BOOM! 59

5 Triangle of Death 83

6 KIA Together 117

7 The Way Back 129

Part 3 Full Circle

8 Lessons Learned 149

9 All for One and One for All 167

10 Home for the Holidays? 187

Part 4 Back To Work

11 Special Forces 207

12 Rock-Paper-Scissors 223

13 A Final Mission 249

14 Pictures of a Dog with Three Legs 269

Acknowledgments 295

Notes on Sources 301

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“I have read nothing that so adroitly weaves together the relationship between our young warriors and man's best friend, from Iraq to Afghanistan and then coming home in body, mind and spirit.”—Marine General James Mattis (Ret.)

“A true war story with a heart as heroic and bold as any account ever told...It's a new classic, one that will inspire everyone.”
—James Rollins, New York Times bestselling author of The 6th Extinction

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