In a cavernous warehouse on a recent weekday, Rose Parade volunteers were busy painting and clipping flowers as they rushed to complete their float in time for New Year's Day festivities. But all activity paused when the star of the decorated stage arrived.
With a Marine corporal in tow, Lucca, a German shepherd-Malinois mix, hopped curiously toward a group of excited children. Her head dipped from the weight of her body, no longer supported by her amputated left leg.
It's been nine months since Lucca lost her paw to a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. A veteran of three combat deployments, she is one of thousands of U.S. military working dogs trained to sniff out booby traps, deliver messages and track enemies. She has led more than 200 missions, with no Marine ever injured under her patrol.
When the 124th Rose Parade kicks off the new year on Tuesday, Lucca and her handlers will be riding a float celebrating the decades of service by her kind. The float, titled "Canines with Courage" and sponsored by Natural Balance Pet Foods, was inspired by the Military Working Dog Teams National Monument that will be dedicated later next year in San Antonio.
Four handlers and their dogs, representing the Air Force, Army and Marines, will also escort the float, built by Fiesta Parade Floats.
"She's loving the attention; Lucca deserves it," said Cpl. Juan Rodriguez, 23, laughing as he lifted the dog onto the float. Rodriguez says he owes his life to her, recalling when she sniffed out a booby trap and set off the bomb that took her leg. He later escorted her to her first handler, Marine Gunnery Sgt. Christopher Willingham, 33, whom Lucca now lives with in spoiled retirement.
A decade ago Lucca would have probably been euthanized after her service. Once considered simply "government equipment" and too dangerous to return to domestic life, U.S. military working dogs have only recently been recognized by the general public for their role in every war since World War II.
Trained at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, where a $15-million veterinary hospital is devoted to treating dogs working for the military and law enforcement, thousands of canines have been sent overseas since 1942. Over the years, many have been left behind as excess equipment.
Then in 2000, President Clinton signed a law allowing retired soldiers and civilians to adopt the dogs after their deployments.
"We've come a long way. It was a lot of hard work, but it's important they all get recognized," said John Burnam, president of the foundation that established the national monument, which is scheduled to be completed by October.
Burnam, who will also be riding on the float, served in the Vietnam War and wrote a first-person account of working with Clipper, a front-line scout dog. Clipper never came back to the U.S.
Burnam's story inspired Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.), who introduced legislation for a national monument. In 2008, President George W. Bush signed the bill into law, and President Obama later authorized Burnam's foundation to build and maintain the monument.
The monument, regal bronze statues of a Doberman pinscher, German shepherd, Labrador retriever and Belgian Malinois leading a dog handler on patrol, cost about $1.2 million. It was funded solely by grants and donations led by sponsors Natural Balance, Petco and Maddie's Fund.
Natural Balance President Joey Herrick, whose company is known for Rose Parade floats boasting the firm's mascot Tillman the bulldog — who has surfed, skateboarded and snowboarded on various floats — was inspired to take on a more serious design this year.
"I'm so proud of this float," Herrick said. "This is not trying to set a Guinness record; this is honoring our soldiers. We have handlers and dogs who have been to Iraq and Afghanistan."
On a recent morning, 86-year-old retired Marine Robert Harr sits quietly on the float. Harr trained the most decorated war dog in the Pacific theater during WWII. After the war, he said, he smuggled his companion, Oki, back home. Word got out and when his German shepherd died in 1958, he was buried with full military services in Newport Beach, where Harr still visits every year on Oki's birthday.
When Harr met Lucca for the first time, she raised her left ear quizzically. Moments later, she lunged onto him, swatting him with her one paw.
Harr wipes away tears. He's excited to be on the float, he says.
"My family, I'll be with them."