Top Dog: The Story of Marine Hero Lucca. Maria Goodavage. Penguin Group USA. October 2014. 320 pp. pbk. ISBN #: 9780525954361.
A follow-up book about canine warrior dogs serving in Afghanistan, Top Dog… continues the story with a detailed account of the service of dog handler Sgt. Chris Wilingham and his canine partner, Lucca. Willingham is a Marine about to add another phase to his military deployment by working with a German Shepherd-Malinois dog named Lucca. Before their service, the author describes the intense training Willingham and other dog-handlers underwent in Israel, apparently the place where the wartime human-dog interaction has been mastered when training them to seek, find, defuse or implode IEDs, otherwise known as improvised explosive devices. A beautiful, fragile and noble chapter describes how each dog handler bonds with the animal they will be working with in such intensely dangerous conditions. It’s a bond for life, not just one created for a job. We see how dogs liked Lucca were brilliantly successful, learning to love, trust and implicitly obey their handler’s orders. We also see how the failures of other dogs would mean the death of dog, handler or both in the volatile conditions they were being trained to encounter and handle.
Lucca and Willingham travel for what will be two tours of Iraq. The account describes the conditions of each mission, ranging from finding IEDs, finding those who are stealing and hiding weapons for battle, finding those insurgents who are attacking the military bases with mortars at all hours of day and night, and keeping a constant alertness to the presence of traitors and snipers in the most expected and unexpected moments. The reader experiences the handlers’ pride in their pooches’ loyalty and faithful adherence to the task as hand, as well as the phenomenally intense anxiety-ridden moments constantly looming over every mission and even their “rest” periods when not out on the job.
The story of Cory Wiens and his dog Cooper is told with sensitivity and nobility; it’s a story every reader will never forget. The story of the trauma mentally and physically endured by the dog handlers will also remain a powerful memory for the reader. “War is hell” almost becomes a trite phrase hardly underscoring the strains of those who serve and served in Iraq, as well as the strife experienced by their families back home in America, in this case Willingham’s wife, who assume full care of family life while constantly fearing for the safety of their husbands who serve multiple deployments out of love of country and fellow soldiers. The thoughts and feelings on all sides are ever-present and all too often ever-consuming.
Top Dog: The Story of Marine hero Lucca is an unforgettable read that this reviewer highly, highly recommends. It’s a story that’s lovely, funny, tragic and so much more. Every American needs to not only read this book but find a way to honor those actual soldiers and canine warriors and their missions which so perfectly parallel their military service to our country! Wonderful job, Maria Goodavage, and service to our nation!