Rick Casillo and his wife, USAF Lt. Col Jennifer Casillo, facilitate an outdoor therapy camp in Anchorage, Alaska.
Their Organization, Battle Dawgs, empowers veterans dealing with post traumatic stress disorders or traumatic brain injuries through therapeutic and exhilarating experiences by harnessing the natural splendor of Alaska’s landscape and the majestic healing power of sled dogs. All of the Battle Dawg camps are mission oriented. When veterans arrive to the camp they are briefed, issued essential gear, and then head to their assigned living quarters. Each night veteran teams are briefed on the next days task, given a starting point time, route to target, and a target engagement brief. Iditarod camp takes place each year since it began four years ago. In 2013, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs released a study that covered suicides from 1999 to 2010, which revealed that roughly 22 veterans were committing suicide per day, or one every 65 minutes. Battle Dawgs aspires to reduce this number through their organization.
(U.S. Air Force Video by Andrew Arthur Breese)
A small prop plane hovered a few hundred feet above the Alaskan landscape, close enough to the ground for its three passengers to make out the dog sled team racing on the trail below.
Looking up and guessing his friends were flying overhead, Rick Casillo, a professional dog musher, waved to the military veterans and gave them a thumbs-up as his sled sprinted over the snow. With a tilt of the plane’s wings they responded in an aerial wave of “hello” before peeling off toward Rainy Pass, an early checkpoint in the roughly 1,000-mile “last great race on Earth.”
The Iditarod is more than a grueling dogsled race across Alaska; it’s also an adventure that has enabled several wounded warriors to take their first steps on the road to recovery.
Rick and his wife Jennifer, an Air Force lieutenant colonel with the Alaska Air National Guard, bring a small group of veterans to the competition each year. While there, the service members get a chance to perform race related activities such as caring for sled dogs and leading a team out to the Iditarod starting line. Through their participation, the couple hopes to empower wounded, ill and injured veterans as they connect with the great outdoors, the athlete dogs pulling the sled and ultimately each other.
“These guys come back from a deployment and they feel a little lost. They lose that sense of mission and that sense of purpose,” Jennifer said.
By forming the veterans into a pit crew for the dogsled team, they are reconnected with that common sense of purpose and mission that formed the backbone of their experience in the military.
“Around here you’re going to pull your weight,” she said. “Whether you’re helping out with the kennel, hooking up the dogs … (or) whatever it may be. It’s definitely a team effort.”
Matthew Berth was in a rough spot when he agreed to attend his first Iditarod Camp last year. The experience, however, triggered a turning point for the Army veteran. Though Berth said he isn’t where he wants to be yet, he’s found the motivation to keep moving in a positive direction.
Berth came back this year to help Jennifer and Rick, as well as to share what he’d learned with other wounded warriors who are working to find their footing.
“The main reason why veterans get down into that dark, deep, suicidal hole is because they think that there is no one out there that they can relate to, there is no one that they can talk to. But, in all actuality, there is,” Berth said.
Though he enjoys being around his military brothers and sisters, Berth has also found solace with the 45 sled dogs at the couple’s kennel in Big Lake.Dogs, he said, bring out the veteran’s loving side, which they have lost due to their experiences.
“Dogs do things for vets that humans can’t fathom to do,” Berth explained. “You can look into a dog’s eyes and that dog will never hate you, will never talk back to you, (and) will always love you.”
After the time he’s spent at the kennel, Berth now recognizes nearly every sled dog by name. He knows their likes and dislikes. He even has a favorite: Syrup, one of Rick’s lead dogs this year. He believes in the benefits of canine companionship, and at home he trains service dogs for veterans.
“Dogs play a crucial role in (a veteran’s) healing process,” he said. “I have a service dog myself and I treat that dog like a brother; he’s my boy.”
Within the past year, Berth’s life has come full circle. After the first Iditarod experience, Berth formed his own veteran group, started public speaking, and currently invites other veterans to his house to talk.
He’s decided to pay it forward.
A member of the pack
The trust and collaboration between man and dog — necessary to survive Iditarod — speaks to the veterans as an example of how they can conquer personal difficulties and limitations together.
“The Iditarod is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever done, but it’s also the most miserable thing I’ve ever done too,” Rick said. “There are times where you’re on cloud nine saying, ‘This is the greatest thing! This is beautiful!’ … and in the next instant … something happens and it just crushes you. It stomps its heel on you and spits on you on the way down as it’s crushing you. I’ve cried on this trail several times, and I’m not afraid to admit that. But that’s the beauty of it. This race proves what you can overcome.”
Driven to do more than just finish a race, Rick is determined to help veterans heal through involvement in a sport he loves. He hopes they are able to get as much out of the Iditarod experience as he does.
“Working with these dogs, it’s a team,” said the Air Force spouse. “It’s me and my 16 dogs headed out on the trail. We have to take care of each other. Just like the veterans – you hear them say that ‘I’ve got your six” – these dogs (have) got my six and I’ve got their six, and without that, you have nothing. That’s what our organization focuses on, is giving these guys that team attitude again.”
Rick doesn’t believe in the mentality of “one and done.” A wounded warrior with a traumatic brain injury won’t miraculously heal by spending a week in the Alaskan wilderness, he explained. What he wants is to inspire that first step in the right direction because, once that happens, the figurative doors and windows open up and empower a veteran to see that the world outside offers much more than the four walls of their own house.
Four years ago, Rick and Jennifer founded a local non-profit called Battle Dawgs to help struggling veterans though outdoor recreation and rehabilitation. At first, Rick was nervous about heading up the veteran organization, telling his wife that he was concerned he might not be able to connect with them due to his lack of military experience.
“I’ve been in 65 below zero, but that doesn’t compare to combat at all,” Rick said. “Those guys can’t fathom what I do, what possesses a guy to stand on the back of a sled (in freezing weather) for 10 days straight and go a thousand miles. But, I can’t comprehend the snap of a bullet going over your head or seeing an explosion, anything like that.”
Though the particulars vary — being in combat versus the Alaskan wilderness — the mutual experience of dealing with hardship was enough to prompt a conversation.
Along the trail
In the fourth grade, Jessy Lakin studied the Iditarod and was absolutely fascinated. It was something he never grew out of, so when he met Rick, he peppered the race veteran with hundreds of questions. Lakin knew it was probably annoying but he just wanted to know more and, if possible, get involved dog sled racing — a sport he saw as a masterful pairing of brotherhood and teamwork.
“Watching those dogs run down the line and motivate each other and just drag each other across this great state, I remember back when I was a veteran, running during (physical training),” said the former Army forward observer. “I’m running with my Soldiers and we’re doing a 12-mile run, or whatever it is, and everybody’s hating life and then one guy looks over and says, ‘This isn’t so bad; let’s go!’ and everybody else is motivated. That’s what these dogs do the entire race, is just motivate each other to finish.”
Now the Battle Dawgs’ director of operations, Lakin is the one encouraging people who are weary to keep moving forward.
“None of us … are psychologists or therapists; we’re just brothers, veterans, service members, people that care,” Lakin said. “We’re all just here to listen. If you have a story to tell, if you want to talk … we’re here.”
Somebody to listen
Invited to Big Lake by Rick and Jennifer, several wounded warriors gathered around a fire pit next to their host’s home. Beside to the orange glow the veterans relaxed into a casual conversation, interrupted occasionally by a chorus of sled dogs who chimed in from their kennels down the hill. Jeff Turkel, a retired Air Force firefighter, joined the group for a moment.
He smiled and talked up a storm, belying the fact that in the recent past, he’d lived as a shut-in, barely coping with post-traumatic stress. For too long he’d kept his own trauma bottled up, and it nearly caused him to self-destruct. Eventually, Turkel came to the realization that in order to let go of the past that was dragging him down, he needed to stop being silent.
“The more I talk about these things, the better I feel,” he said. “There’s a lot of healing that comes from letting it out. It’s like I’m releasing the pain. I’m releasing the horror of those incidents, and talking about it, I realize that there are people that actually care to listen.”
Understanding the relief talking can provide, Turkel wants to also be a listening ear for other veterans who need to converse about their experiences.
“That’s what blesses my socks off, being there for somebody else and being able to help them because, when I’m helping them, I’m helping myself,” he said. “There’s no better feeling in the world.”
From 22 to zero
According to data released by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in 2012, it is estimated that every day nearly 22 veterans commit suicide. As a military member, that number hits home for Jennifer and it is something she is trying to address.
“Often when vets come back from a deployment, that’s when their true battle begins. When it’s time to turn their Humvee and their (rifle) back in for the minivan and their kids’ recitals, it’s a big turn in life,” she said. “We don’t pretend to have the solutions or some magic dust that just makes everything OK. But sometimes they just need a hand.”
On the Battle Dawgs’ uniform is a patch with the number 22, circled and crossed out. Their main goal is to eliminate that number, and one way they are hoping to do it is through exposing veterans to the healing power of nature.
“We take them out … to remote parts of Alaska. We go out on the trail with the sled dogs,” Jennifer said. “It puts you in a challenging environment where you have to be a team to get something done.”
After coordinating the camps, working full-time with the Air National Guard, and assisting Rick with his sled dog races, Jennifer is left with little free time, but, to her, it’s well worth the personal sacrifice.
“My dad is one of my biggest heroes, one of the wisest men I know. He taught me as a kid that time is your most precious gift to give to somebody. So, if you find a purpose or something that is worthy of your time, that’s what it’s all about,” she said. “We’ve got the ability to reach out and bring someone up. There’s no better high in life that that: when you look back and see that you’ve really helped someone out.”