Men and women who perform valiantly in the face of the enemy are not the only military personnel who should be awarded for their courage. This thought is what drove Maria Dickin to establish the Dickin medal through her veterinary charity the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA). The Medal was instituted in 1943 to honor the work of animals during World War II and has since honored 67 military service animals.

The first animals to receive the Dickin Medal were carrier pigeons that carried vital messages that contributed to the rescue of airmen from downed aircraft during 1942 and 1943. The award was given to numerous animals throughout the rest of the war ranging from dog that was killed in combat while saving his human handlers by collecting a live grenade to a pigeon that delivered crucial messages during the battles at Normandy. Unfortunately the award was largely forgotten following World War II, with no recipients between 1950-2000.

The medal made a spectacular resurgence following the attacks of September 11th attacks when it was given to 3 dogs: Appollo, Salty, and Roselle. Apollo received the Dickin medal on behalf of all search-and-rescue dogs that assisted in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks for their collective valor in the face of tragedy. Salty and Roselle were two Labrador guide dogs who received the medal for leading their blind owners down more than 70 flights of stars to escape the burning buildings during the attacks. Since then the Dickin Medal has been seen as a symbol of valor among service animals and has been awarded numerous times to animals who have helped save the lives of their human counterparts during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The latest recipient of the award is Lucca, a retired Marine Corps German Shepard Dog. Lucca received the award for outstanding service in Iraq and Afghanistan. During her six years of service Lucca completed 400 missions without a single casualty to any member of her team. Sadly Lucca lost a leg during her final patrol on March 23, 2012, when she detected an IED that detonated at close range. Lucca uncovered more that 40 IEDs during her two deployments to Iraq and one deployment to Afghanistan. She was honored with the Dickin Medal during a ceremony in London on April 5, 2016. As part of her retirement she will be transferred from her current handler Juan M. Rodriguez (pictured above) to live with her original trainer Gunnery Sergeant Christopher Willingham.

As 2015 drew to a close, President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act to appropriate funds for military spending in 2016. Although it is a standard and often uneventful peace of legislation, the act came with a special Christmas gift for military service animals. Within the hundreds of pages that made up the bill, there was a provision that will allow military service dogs to return home to the United States for retirement. Previously, military service animals were ineligible for transport back to the U.S. and were often placed in local shelters.

This marks a huge victory for both animal rights groups and veterans care groups who have long been fighting to give military animals a proper and happy retirement. Their service to military operations and personnel is often overlooked despite their incredible life saving contributions. In fact, according to the American Humane Association, each military service dog saves the lives of between 150-200 service men by detecting IEDs and hidden weapons caches.

The law also goes beyond simply bringing these heroic dogs home, it gives the military handlers the first choice in adoptions of these dogs. This makes a huge difference to veterans who have returned home and are struggling to adjust to civilian life. Having a K9 companion who has experienced many of the same traumatic experiences can help veterans combat conditions like PTSD. This offers many retired military dogs the ability retire in comfort while continuing to serve the struggling veterans they love.

“The NDAA and its passage will ensure that our four-legged veterans will finally have their chance to come home and live a comfortable quiet life, hopefully with a handler they deployed with or a fellow veteran.” – Lance Corporal Jeff DeYoung, USMC (Ret.) who was reunited with his military dog Cena (From the American Humane Newsroom)

Credit goes to Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat from Missouri, and Congressman Frank LoBiondo, Republican from New Jersey, who introduced the provision.