Another Kind of Hero

Somewhere out there, there is 40 pounds of explosives waiting to destroy an American life. On the battlefield, terrorism takes the form improvised explosive devices (IEDs). We used to refer to such things as booby traps (meaning a device used to catch the unwary); they have always had a profound psychological effect on military forces —and a devastating effect on civilian populations, as well. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the disposal of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, coalition forces remained in that country and assumed a new mission: nation building. The axiom used by former-president George H. W. Bush was, “If you break it, you own it.” George W. Bush broke it.

To combat these American forces, Iraqi and other insurgents used IEDs. It became the leading cause of death and injury among coalition forces in the region; 60% killed or injured in 2010, averaging 2.5 injuries per incident. In the case of those killed in action, injuries were so massive that there was no way to prevent their death. Among those military personnel that did survive IEDs, many also suffered significant brain damage from the concussion of the explosion. None of these people will ever return to their pre-war normalcy.

How did our troops survive in this environment? How did they even muster the courage to go on patrol, realizing that there was an IED out there just waiting for them? In the Marines, the squad looks after one another. Add to this mix the dog handlers augmenting each combat patrol. An experienced set of eyes and a dog’s ability to sniff out explosives will help to save the lives of Marines; not always, but in most cases. The cost: serious injury and death among dog handlers and their canine Marines. It is an amazing story.

Hartley - Blue 001On 8 February 2012, Lance Corporal Jarrett Hartley and his dog Blue accompanied 3rd Platoon, Lima Company, 3/3 into Loya Darvishan, Southern Helmand Province. While passing through a tiny village, Afghan National Army partners stopped to search a suspicious compound. They found several mortar castings; enough to prompt a more detailed search of surrounding compounds. The patrol avoided adjacent roads due to the increased threat of IEDs; they opted instead to cross into a nearby field, which took them through an arid canal. However, before the Marines entered the canal, Corporal Hartley noticed a darker patch of dirt that looked recently disturbed.

Hartley halted the patrol and sent Blue to sniff for explosives. Moments later the Labrador retriever laid down next to the area, confirming the presence of an IED. He had just saved several of a dozen lives. Hartley remarked, “While we’re on patrol, everyone looks to Blue and me to keep them safe. If we mess up, my friends will be blown up—because of my mistake.” Hartley was then 21-years old, a rifleman by training, and a volunteer to become a dog handler. But why would this young man place himself into such a dangerous position? Easy enough, he said … “I wanted to help protect Marines from getting hurt.”

Hartley’s previous tour in Helmand Province was running and gunning for insurgents as a member of his platoon. After training as a dog handler, his responsibilities changed. He remained with his platoon, but now he had to think and care for two; now he was carrying a much heavier responsibility on his shoulders. Marine and dog have become IED hunters; they do everything together, from patrolling to boarding helicopters for movement to other areas of the province. Together, the screen pedestrians, the work vehicle checkpoints, and they rest together after exhausting patrols. They experience the biting sandstorms, the bitter cold, and the scorching heat of the summer months. Through it all, Blue seems to realize that he has an awesome responsibility, too. He acts as if he understands that he is a front line defense against death and serious injury.

Nevertheless, the dogs are dogs and they like to goof off just as all dogs like to goof off. They like to jump in pools of water, chase other animals, and they get tired. Some times the animals are playful, other times they are moody. They are a challenge to their handlers, but they are saving lives and some times, at great cost to themselves.

Lucca 001Recently, an eight-year old Belgian Malinois named Lucca accepted her medical discharge from the U. S. Marine Corps and made her way back home to live with her first handler, Gunnery Sergeant Chris Willingham in Finland. As she hobbled through Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport with her handler, Marine Corporal Juan Rodriguez, human passengers stood and applauded the hero dog that lost her leg while looking out for her fellow Marines. On that day, Lucca detected a buried explosive, alerted her Marines, and immediately began to search for other explosives. What she did not know was that the enemy had booby-trapped the IED. When the IED exploded, Corporal Rodriguez could hear her screaming and yelping. He ran to her and began to administer life saving first aid. “It was rough,” Rodriguez said. (See Notes 1, 2)

In between combat patrols, a dog handler is likely to play with their dog; playing fetch is one popular pass time and it is here that these animals provide another invaluable service; they boost the moral among fellow Marines and each of these dogs finally finds a way into their hearts. No, they are not pets. They are highly skilled working animals. No, they are not just government property. They are life savers, morale boosters, and genuine American heroes.


  1. Writer Maria Goodavage told Lucca’s story in an excellent book titled Top Dog: The Story of Marine Hero Lucca. You can find the book at Amazon.
  2. Picture of Lucca and GySgt Willingham by Los Angeles Times photojournalist Gary Friedman

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Retired Marine, historian, writer.

27 thoughts on “Another Kind of Hero”

    1. Yes, returned to her original owner. I sure hope there’s a place in Heaven for these loyal animals.


  1. Saw a TV segment on the Gy, family, and Lucca. I thought they were at Pendleton. Great story. Dog seems to have transitioned to family life very well.


    1. Humans often seem preoccupied by self-pity; animals don’t have that problem.


  2. I never understand why the vermin in our society gets so much press and the real heroes, including working dogs, are rarely mentioned. Was the Gunny on Embassy duty in Finland?

    Thank you again, Mustang, for bringing our history to us.


    1. The information about Finland confused me, as well. According to TWS, Gunny Willingham did serve a tour on Marine Security Guard at Tel Aviv, but I see no reference to duty in Finland. The Gunny entered on active duty in 1999, presently services as an MP/Dog Handler with I MEF.


  3. “How did they even muster the courage to go on patrol, realizing that there was an IED out there just waiting for them?”
    I was at Normandy standing in a tiny German cement bunker with a long narrow slit in it through which their guns were aimed at our precious boys ……Who can help thinking about all those soldiers jumping into the ocean to get to shore, knowing the guys in front would be killed…knowing, not worrying about it, KNOWING. How the heck soldiers can do that is well beyond my understanding, sadly.

    These dogs are amazing, aren’t they! Thanks for bringing this story to us…….These dogs sound braver and smarter than many politicians.


    1. People join the Marines to become warriors. You cannot be a warrior if you aren’t willing to locate, close with, and destroy your enemy by fire and maneuver. As for the dogs, I would think it would be very difficult to have a dog assigned to you, and then taken away once your tour of duty was up. I also wonder how it affects the capabilities of a dog after a change in handlers. If anyone can answer these questions, chime in.


  4. Outside of the casualties, a wonderful story with a great ending. Dogs are part of why I like animals much more than a lot of people. They help us in so many ways. I read recently where dogs can detect lung cancer before any current medical procedure could. Much more. Yes, I hope God has a special place for them. Surely he must.


    1. I did not know this, Kid. So I researched it and found that you are completely right. In two recent studies, dogs were able to detect the presence of the alkanes and aromatic compounds generated by tumors; they can detect the tumors in urine, and in a person’s breath. One must wonder why we are not hearing more about this…


  5. AOW, Yes, all of them. There are more than a few that I intend to look for as a first order of business should I get there.


    1. The origin of the following story was an episode of the Twilight Zone:

      An old man and his dog were walking down a hot, dusty road lined with a beautiful white fence on both sides. As they walked along, the old man and his dog became very thirsty and tired.

      Soon, they came to a gate in the fence where, on the other side, they saw a nice grassy, wooded area surrounding a cool clear pool of fresh water. “Just where a thirsty ‘huntin’ dog and a man would like to rest!” thought the old man. But there was a sign over the gate that read “No Dogs” so they walked on.

      Further on, they came upon a man in flowing white robes standing just inside a strong iron gate across a path that led to a beautiful, sunny meadow with a cool clear stream running through it.

      “‘Scuse me Sir,” said the old man, “My dog and I have been on this road all day. Mind if we come in and sit in the shade for awhile?” “ Of course!” The man said. “Come on in and rest. You look thirsty and tired.” The old man said, “We sure are!” and started through the gate with his dog.

      The gatekeeper stopped him. “Sorry, you can come in but your dog can’t come with you. “ You see, this is Heaven, and dogs aren’t allowed here. He has to stay out here on the road.” “ What kind of Heaven won’t allow dogs?” said the old man. “Well, if he can’t come in, then I’ll stay out here on the road with him. He’s been my faithful companion all his life and I won’t desert him now.”

      “Suit yourself,” said the gatekeeper, “but I have to warn you, the Devil’s on this road and he’ll try to sweet talk you into his place. He’ll promise you anything, but dogs can’t go there either. If you won’t leave that dog on the road, you’ll spend all Eternity on the road with him. Better if you stay here.”

      “Well, I’m stayin’ with my dog,” replied the man and he and the dog walked on. Gradually, the fence became more and more faded and rundown until they finally reached a spot where the boards fell away completely leaving a gap. Another man dressed in old, ragged clothes sat just inside the broken fence under a shady tree.

      “‘Scuse me Sir,” said the old man, “My dog and I have been on this road all day. Mind if we come in and sit in the shade for awhile?” “ Of course!” The man said. “Come on in and rest. There’s some cold water here under the tree. Make yourself comfortable.”

      The old man paused, “but what about my dog? Can he come in, too? The man up the road said dogs weren’t allowed here, and they had to stay on the road.” The other man answered, “Well, you look pretty tired and thirsty. Would you come in here and rest if you had to leave that dog?”

      “No sir!” the old man replied, “A glass of cold water and some shade would be mighty fine right about now but I won’t come in if my buddy here can’t come too. I didn’t go to Heaven because my dog couldn’t come with me, so I sure as how ain’t about to go to Hell without him neither.”

      The man smiled and said, “Welcome to Heaven, and bring your dog!” The old man exclaimed, “You mean this is Heaven? And my dog can come with me? Then why did that fellow down the road say they weren’t allowed in Heaven?” The man replied, “That was the Devil and he gets all the souls who are willing to give up a life-long companion for small comfort because they think it will make their lives a little easier.”

      The man continued, “They soon find out their mistake, but, then it’s too late. The dogs come here; the fickle people stay there. God wouldn’t allow dogs to be banned from Heaven. After all, He created them to be man’s companions in life, why would he separate them in death?”


  6. “. I sure hope there’s a place in Heaven for these loyal animals.”

    My 6 yr old son came our of Sunday School – crying -“Mommy- Pastor says that Daphne (our Irish Setter) is not going to heaven-because – animals don’t go to heaven>”
    I looked at my son and said-“I’ll have a little talks w/the Pastor–

    I went to his office – told what S had told me- and stated-“If my dogs – horses- cats- or any animal is not going to heaven- I do not want to go there-either-”

    The Pastor changed his tune-


    1. Given the affinity humans have with animals, I will be shocked to think that there are no dogs, or cats, or horses, in heaven. Why should our Lord restrict the things that give us comfort?


  7. They are all Marines. Loyal to the end. The night I got back from Leyte, my kids asked to go see Max at the movies. I thought I cried enough in the Philippines. Watching the re-enactment of the dog sitting alongside his handlers casket got me crying once again.

    I wish I had the time and finances to pay my respects on Guam…

    Very touching post. BTW, I thoroughly appreciated your series on Belleau Woods. The comparison to Tarawa was surprising.


  8. What stories are told about these animals. They just want to please you. Too bad we don’t get to take them to heaven with us. On the other hand, think of the joy, comfort and entertainment they give us here. Heaven is so wonderful it no longer needs these little helps. Still…..


    1. I read somewhere that dogs actually believe that they and their human masters are of the same species. No doubt cats are of the opinion that the humans are inferior.


  9. “No doubt cats are of the opinion that the humans are inferior.” Mustang, have you ever seen 10 cats pulling a sled through snow? Didn’t think so. 🙂

    “dogs can detect lung cancer” There was a nursing home whose cat would come to sit at the bed of a person when they were near the time to die. Eerie. But the staff and residents knew where she went, that person was close to dying.

    When I was young my mother was extremely ill with a life-threatening infection. Our cat kept a vigil on her bed for weeks during the worst of it. This was a mostly outdoor cat. She didn’t loll around inside all day. But she only left mom’s bed to eat or pee. Then, one day, she jumped down and went outside and back to her regular habits. The NEXT DAY mom had a major turn for the better and was able to get up, fix a meal and take care of some things in the house. Coincidence? I don’t think so.


  10. Baysider, That is fascinating. I’m sure cats can feel our emotions, but I had never heard a story realted to health. Cats do provide comfort to people in nursing homes and such, but I’d never heard the health sensing angle before.


  11. Baysider and Kid,
    Cats are excellent health sensors. On more than one occasion, one of our cats has stood vigil over us here in this household — when we were having health problems.

    As the saying goes: “Cats know things.”


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