Military working dogs have served and protected countless lives in war, and an upcoming exhibit at the National Museum of the Marine Corps will honor their deeds.
The exhibit “War Dogs: Never Above You, Never Below You, Always Beside You,” with 28 works by 21 artists, will open Saturday at the museum in Triangle.
Museum spokeswoman Gwenn Adams said the exhibit includes works by Marines, U.S. Navy and Coast Guard artists, and dog handler Chris Willingham will be at the opening to talk about his experiences in war with his dog, Lucca.
During one of her more than 400 missions, Lucca was wounded and lost a leg in Afghanistan, but continued to serve.
“Chris Willingham was dog handler for the Marine Corps war dog Lucca,” Adams said. “Lucca conducted multiple operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. She was wounded once and rehabbed and came back into service. When she retired, Chris was able to adopt her,” Adams said.
Lucca, a German shepherd–Belgian Malinois mix, was honored by the British organization People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals for her service.
“She received the Dickin Medal, which is a British award for animal heroism, so Chris and one of Lucca’s other handlers will be here talking about the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Adams said.
Artist Jim Mellick, who carves life-size dogs in wood, will also be at the exhibit’s opening to talk about his collection of eight sculptures that represent the injuries suffered by war dogs and their handlers.
Mellick, who included Lucca in his collection, said he was moved by the wounded warriors he saw coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan and felt the need to do something to honor and help them.
U.S. military dogs have officially served in war since WWII and continue to serve in dangerous missions on today’s battlefields.
Mellick’s collection includes dogs representing WWII, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Service ribbons on the dogs’ collars signify the campaigns in which they served, Mellick said.
The Dobermans represent WWII, the German shepherds represent Vietnam, and Iraq and Afghanistan are represented by Labrador retrievers and Belgian Malinois, Mellick said.
Mellick, who has been carving in wood since 1976, said he’s always used dogs to talk about humans because of the connection between the two.
“As an artist, I’ve always told stories with dogs. That’s always been my main allegory in telling the story of the human condition,” the 72-year-old Mellick said. “The wounded warrior dogs are the stand-ins to their human counterparts.”
“I live in an insulated world. I am not military, so my life goes on, yet there are these young people who are losing life and limb on my behalf so that my life can go on,” said Mellick, a retired college associate professor. “We need to do more for these people when they come home.”
Beginning in 2015, Mellick worked 14 months to create his Wounded Warrior Dogs Project, which has toured the country and won several prestigious awards.
“I was just driven to get these things done. Each one probably takes me 160 to 200 hours to create,” said Mellick who lives with his wife, Marcia, and two dogs, Heidi a Weimaraner and Hillary a Weimaraner–Labrador mix, on his farm in Marysville, Ohio, where he created the sculptures.
Mellick said he wanted his work to help wounded warriors.
“My original intent was to raise money, to raise awareness for wounded veterans, wherever these were showing, to try and engender giving for the wounded warriors’ causes,” Mellick said.
After looking around and exhibiting his work, Mellick said he found that raising money wasn’t necessarily what was needed.
“I realized that a lot of the veterans organizations have their own source of income, so I rewrote my mission statement. So, my mission statement now is about the healing,” Mellick said.
“I have this real mission. It’s probably the most meaningful work that I’ve done in my whole lifetime and I am blessed to have this come along at the last minute in my overtime,” said Mellick, who began his project after a heart attack.
The “War Dogs” exhibit also includes sketches, paintings on canvas, pencil and paper, felt-tip pen on paper, as well as K-9 team artifacts, Adams said.
“Some of the artifacts in the show are great as well, and include a K-9 field medical kit, the multipurpose tactical vest the K-9s wear. There’s an IED detection dog collar. There’s a war dog’s purple heart. That’s just a smattering that’s included in the show,” Adams said.
The exhibit will run through September.