The New York Times bestselling author of Soldier Dogs returns with 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.
In Top Dog, 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. She served alongside both Special Forces and regular infantry, and became so sought-after that platoons frequently requested her by name.
The book describes in gritty detail Lucca's adventures on and off the battlefields, including tense, lifesaving explosives finds and 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 this violence ignites.
Here 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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MARIA GOODAVAGE is the author of the New York Times bestseller Soldier Dogs and a former reporter for USA Today. She lives in San Francisco with her family and their dog.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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 sit—zit 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 d...
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