Working dog Lucca, shown right in Afghanistan, is one of many dogs whose service is commemorated at the National Museum of the United States Army's new traveling exhibit. (National Army Museum / DVIDs )
Share This Article

Anyone who has owned a dog knows firsthand the pure and unconditional love these animals demonstrate and the extra efforts they make to please their humans. This devotion, as shown in the fiery crucible of war, is the focus of a new traveling exhibit at The National Museum of the U.S. Army in Fort Belvoir, Va. entitled “Loyal Service: Working Dogs At War.”

Sixteen wooden sculptures created by artist and master wood carver Jim Mellick highlight the extraordinary heroism of working military dogs and their handlers—not only from the U.S. Army, but spanning all branches of the military.

“Pet owners and dog owners know how happy dogs are to see when you come home or interact with you. Dogs do that on the battlefield also – they want to do their job,” said Chief Curator Paul Morando in an interview with HistoryNet.

The life-size sculptures are both realistic and rich in meaning, with some representing specific working dogs and others symbolizing the wartime bonds and experiences shared by dogs and their military handlers. One sculpture pays tribute to both Vietnam War veterans and the 4,000 working dogs left behind in Vietnam at the end of the war.

This sculpture pays tribute to Vietnam War veterans as well as 4,000 military working dogs left behind in Vietnam after the war. (NMUSA)

“The reactions have been very emotional. I think the majority of folks, whether a dog owner or pet owner or not, come away feeling touched after walking through the exhibit,” said Morando. “They are connecting with these sculptures and with these stories.”

One story expressed by the sculptures that has especially resonated with Museum Specialist Sara Bowen, lead curator of the exhibit, is that of the bond between two dogs, Lucca and Cooper. “These sculptures were developed to display together because Cooper and Lucca were actually friends in real life,” Bowen told HistoryNet. “They served together in Iraq.”

On her first tour of Iraq, Lucca bonded with a yellow Labrador named Cooper, who is displayed beside her in the exhibit holding a deflated football. “We have photographs of these two dogs playing with this deflated football in the theater of war,” said Bowen. The bond between the dogs led to a friendship between their handlers, U.S. Marine Gunnery Sgt. Christopher Willingham and U.S. Army Cpl. Kory Wiens of the 94th Mine Dog Detachment, 5th Engineer Batallion, 1st Engineer Brigade. Wiens and Cooper were both tragically killed by an IED on July 6, 2007.

“They were the first dog handler team to be killed in the Global War on Terror,” said Bowen. “As a symbolism of their bond, Cpl. Wiens’ father had both of their ashes buried together.”

Lucca went on to complete 400 missions and survived losing a leg to an IED explosion in March 2012. She became the first U.S. Marine dog to be awarded the PDSA Dickin Medal and was adopted by Willingham, who cared for her at home until her death of natural causes.

Lucca and Cooper’s friendship is celebrated in a display entitled, “Over the Rainbow Bridge.” (NMUSA)

Both Lucca and Cooper are commemorated in the display entitled, “Over the Rainbow Bridge,” which celebrates their spirit and their friendship.

“The artist wanted to display them reuniting on the other side of the Rainbow Bridge,” said Bowen, describing how Mellick’s superb attention to detail recreated each dog’s personality, fur colors and even a characteristic flop in one of Lucca’s ears. “You can really see how lifelike they are – how much love and attention to detail the artist Jim Mellick is putting into each individual sculpture. It’s taken months on end to replicate those tiny details.”

“What we want visitors to take away is a deeper appreciation for these working dogs and their service to our country,” Morando said.

The exhibit will be available daily until Jan. 8, 2024. Anyone interested in learning about more unique stories of military service animals can register for online or in-person companion programs offered here.