Top Dog

“Top Dog: The Story of Marine Hero Lucca,” by Maria Goodavage, Dutton, $26.95.

This riveting narrative reaffirms that famed characterization that “war is hell” and in the midst of two wars – Iraq and Afghanistan – is our gritty title subject, a 75-pound Belgian Malinois who develops a powerful bond between Marine Corps handlers Chris Willingham and Juan Rodriguez.

A Specialized Search Dog, she serves off-lead with her partner assigned to Special Forces and regular infantry in dangerous terrain within both countries.

In the Acknowledgement section, the author notes the 11 days she spent in the Willingham household conducting interviews and gaining some insight into what makes “Mama Lucca” so special, particularly when she was carrying tasty salmon treats. Top DogA

“Lucca was crazy about her biographer and the feeling was mutual,” writes Goodavage, who dishes out plenty of thanks to the rest of Team Lucca, from the dog’s “other dad” Rodriguez to army veterinarians and her volunteer team of experts.

In this quick 320-page turner, Lucca’s six-year journey takes you from her youth in the Netherlands, formative months in Israel, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the death of her best four-legged friend, night air assaults, the thrill of the Kong, mortars, the scents of firefights and fear, countless IEDs, losing a leg, visiting wounded warriors, parades and a loving family life at home.

After watching a demo of Lucca’s capabilities in Iraq, one of the soldiers observes, “She’s like remote control.”

Willingham responds, “I’m just going to be an added asset to you. I’m here to support you. I got the ability to walk on point, so we have the chance to detect an IED before we get to it. We can help search caches. Lucca is a force multiplier. . . . She’s a great dog. But like all dogs, she’s proven, not perfect.”

While “Top Dog” is centered on Lucca and the combat zone and training stateside, it doesn’t overlook family, either, and Willingham’s incredibly supportive wife Jill and children, for whom he makes the eventual decision not to redeploy in harm’s way, even though military working dogs are his life.

On one of Willingham’s deployments, Lucca is left at Camp Pendleton (Calif.) for seven months when Willingham is assigned a kennel-master role abroad and is responsible for 30 teams.

Recognizing Lucca is fit and ready for another assignment abroad, Willingham is faced with determining who is best qualified for her hander. Rodriguez is the choice, and one he never regrets.

While on patrol in Afghanistan March 23, 2012 with a dozen Special Forces members, Lucca detonates an IED, resulting in burns and lacerations on her chest, blisters around her lips and serious injuries to her left forelimb, eventually resulting in amputation.

Ironically, this occurs the day the Willinghams are celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary in Helsinki, where they have been transferred. The next morning when they were getting ready to check out of a hotel, Jill checks her e-mail to find one from Gunnery Sgt. Shane Green, a longtime dog-handler friend of Willingham’s and now kennel master at Camp Pendleton, asking her husband to call him immediately.

Like Willingham had carried guilt for months after one of his Military Working Dog teams died from an IED explosion earlier, Rodriguez places blame squarely on himself for Lucca’s injuries and forced retirement.

Prior to the deployment of Lucca and Rodriguez, Willingham made arrangements and Rodriguez was agreeable that Lucca would become a Willingham family member upon her eventual retirement. This simply accelerates that process as the tenor shifts from agony to ecstasy when Lucca is brought back to the United States and feted from parades to special ceremonies in the moving final tableau.

“Top Dog” is a rich, intimate portrait of a special dog traversing the slippery slope of challenging war zones abroad with an intoxicating blend of tension and passion then embracing well-deserved adoration at home.

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