Rick Casillo has plenty of fans. Well-known and respected, he’s a longtime fixture on the Iditarod circuit, but Casillo’s other focus is centered around helping another group of veterans.


Casillo and his wife, Jennifer Casillo, joined other guests for the official opening of Talkeetna’s Camp Battle Dawgs Lodge.


“This is my way of serving, I did not serve in the military,” Rick Casillo said. “Veterans and warriors is something I’ve always been passionate about.”


Jennifer Casillo currently serves in the Alaska National Guard. The Casillos created the organization Battle Dawgs four years ago to help military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries.


“Now, we actually have a home base where we can bring a lot more people up, and house a lot more warriors at one time,” Rick Casillo told KTVA, adding that the lodge also means veterans can spend more nights at the camp, instead of camping outdoors.


Dr. Deb Wood owns the lodge and lives in it half the year when she’s not back in Virginia.


“I had my property, 640 acres up here, nobody was using it, because I was stuck back east treating the military,” Wood told KTVA.


She helps treat veterans back on the East Coast who suffer from mental issues stemming from combat. Wood said the physical symptoms of combat are only one sign of potential problems.


“We’d see such amazing results, but then the emotional part was causing them to not be totally healed,” Wood said.


It’s estimated 22 veterans commit suicide every day around the country, but many veterans groups say the number is likely higher, since Alaska is among a handful of states that does not report suicide by veterans.


Michael Lindsay will leave the U.S. Army next April after 20 years of service. Several deployments into combat have taken their toll on him, he says.


“I was kind of going down that road of senseless anger, not very patient with people, very moody, disconnecting myself from people around me, people who cared about me,” said Lindsay, who joined the Battle Dawgs program in 2015.


“Being able to disconnect from technology, from work, from social networks, just being with my self, with my own thoughts, out in nature, it allowed me to take a hard look at who I was, and some of the things I had seen and done, and how it affected me,” Lindsay explained.


The group’s motto is “helping our warriors one step at a time.” The Casillos believe they’ve taken the important first step in a lengthy process: providing veterans a home away from home.


Rick Casillo may be the right guy to help them find their way back on the trail. He is, after all, accustomed to racing for the long haul.


KTVA 11’s Dave Leval can be reached via email. Follow KTVA 11 Sports on Facebook and Twitter.