Hero dog reunites with first trainer

If licks could translate into words, “I love you” is probably what Lucca, the bomb-sniffing dog injured in Afghanistan, told old friend Marine Gunnery Sgt. Christopher Willingham when they reunited Friday.

The three-legged Belgian Malinois’ tail went into overdrive as she leapt into Willingham’s arms at the Helsinki airport, a video provided by American Airlines shows. It’s not surprising: Willingham was Lucca’s first trainer and spent five years with her including a tour of duty in Iraq.

Watching and beaming was Lucca’s second trainer, Marine Cpl. Juan Rodriguez, who rushed to her side when she was injured by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan’s Helmand province in March.

The wounds were so severe Lucca’s front left leg had to be amputated. But she showed no signs of slowing down at the airport as she greeted Willingham, his wife and two young children, who will be her new family.

“What’s up Lucca ... I missed you big girl,” Willingham said softly as the dog licked his face nonstop.

“This is amazing,” he told a Finnish TV crew. “It’s everything I was hoping for.”

Lucca was part of an elite team of specialized search dogs, trained to search independently for arms, ammunition and explosives. Before her retirement, she had participated in more than 400 patrols with at least 40 confirmed findings, saving countless Marines’ lives, officials said.

Willingham started as Lucca’s trainer when she was 2. He now is head of security at the U.S. Embassy in Finland. Lucca and Rodriguez were flown to Helsinki through American Airlines and Air Compassion for Veterans, which provides flights to military personnel and veterans with medical needs.

The team was honored at O’Hare International Airport Thursday before boarding their flight to Finland.

At one point in her effusive reunion, Lucca turned back to Rodriguez and nuzzled him before he handed the leash over to Willingham.

“Before I left to come to Helsinki, I was able to select a handler to take over the leash — I had only one choice, Cpl. Rodriguez,” Willingham said. “He did a phenomenal job and I thank him for saving her life when she was injured.”

To learn more about the Air Compassion for Veterans program, contact

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