Iditarod musher's camp offers veterans camaraderie
For many Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race mushers, reaching the Burled Arch in Nome after a 1,000-mile trip of adventure and self-discovery is enough -- but not for Rick Casillo.
“Yes I race dogs, I race the Iditarod,” Casillo says. “And it’s absolutely a passion and what I’m all about, but this is my true mission and I’m going to do this as long as I possibly can.”
The mission is Battle Dawgs, a non-profit effort that offers veterans a different version of self-reflection. Casillo and his wife Jen started Battle Dawgs five years ago.
“It’s like the light goes on when they’re up here. Alaska is an amazing place. It’s changed a lot of lives, a lot of musher’s lives,” said Casillo. “Everyone that comes up here is in awe of the state, when you bring these guys up here it really shows them that the world is a massive place: 'What am I doing sitting on the couch feeling sorry for myself? There’s so much more to see.'”
The program has helped veterans like Anthony Norris who now sits on the board of directors. Norris was wounded by an IED in Afghanistan. He’s been with Battle Dawgs since the start, participating in a warrior Iditarod camp.
“It was life changing you know. Just being in Alaska is life changing, “ Norris said. “And when you get to be part of Iditarod, working the dogs and helping someone race, you’re part of a team again. It gives you a new mission, a new purpose that a lot of guys don’t have anymore."
Casillo says this summer’s camp is being used to build for the future.
“We thought how cool would it be to have all our warriors who’ve been through Battle Dawgs. We bring them up as kind of a reunion camp and they’re building this future of Battle Dawgs for their brothers and sisters for their future. We sent out the email and it was boom, boom, boom; within a day, it was all set.”
Norris agreed, saying he’s gotten so much out of the program that it’s time to help others.
“We’re not doing this for just something to do. The guys are here building it for other warriors. It’s that whole pay-it-forward thing,” said Norris. “They’re expending energy, they’re getting bonds with other warriors, they’re meeting new people and having new experiences.”
Battle Dawgs has grown largely from donations. Dr. Deb Wood runs a wellness center in Virginia and owns 650 acres of property near Talkeetna.
“They are going to protect us again,” said Wood, who just wrote a book entitled “The Truth About Suicide.” “We just have to get them well and understand that we love them. They don’t know that Americans love them. They are totally shocked that we as civilians, me as a civilian and Rick, love them. I mean we don’t just care about them… we frickin’ love them.”
In some cases it's about more than recharging a battery. It's about helping a vet like Matt Berth find purpose.
“When I first came up I was really in a bad spot. I was drinking heavily and I was low on life. And I owe my life to Rick.”
Dr. Wood believes healing camps are the best medicine, as suicide has become an all-too-common-solution for those who’ve fought overseas.
“Some of the guys that come to me are on 20 different pills," Wood said. "They don’t have a chance. They come in lethargic. These are powerhouse big guys that love our country, love their buddies. And they can’t even function, they can’t think.”
Berth, who was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, appreciates a program like Battle Dawgs because it gets at core issues without pressure.
“When you go overseas and come home, you leave that high-speed mentality and lifestyle overseas. And you come home and it’s really hard to adjust and fit in,” Berth said.
The camp gives opportunity for veterans to release feelings locked away for decades. It helped Vietnam veteran Patrick Michael Fitzgerald an opportunity to talk and connect with a different generation.
“I talk about things now that I didn’t think I was ever going to be able to talk about," Fitzgerald said. "It’s not that I want to boast I did this or I did that…that stuff’s been inside me since 1968.”
Fitzgerald added, “The guys here are a lot younger than I am, but we were all in combat. We’ve all been shot at, we all know what that feels like.”
It’s true therapy in a place that most only read about. And there is no cost to the veterans.
Anthony Norris currently lives in Missouri.
“It’s really humid," Norris said. "There’s a lot more pain because of humidity. Well coming up here, you hurt less in general. And how can you have a bad day when you look out and you see all this? It’s pretty tough.”
The backdrop of Battle Dawgs Camp is Denali, but it all started with a sled dog race. A race that Casillo believes helps him relate to the veterans, despite the fact that he’s a civilian.
“They know I do something not a lot of people do. They know it’s tough, it’s grueling. They know the hardships that we face. Not that I’m comparing Iditarod to serving in Iraq and Afghanistan because that’s the ultimate, but they know deep down you know what it’s like to be miserable and in the middle of nowhere and working in that team,” said Casillo. “They know without those dogs we’re nothing. They know without the guy on the left, the guy on the right, they’re nothing. Cause they’re willing to lay down their lives for each other.”
The camp creates bonds, while offering veterans another opportunity to be part of a team. Battle Dawgs saves lives and that’s something Casillo takes very serious.
“When we change one life and we’ve saved five since we’ve been doing this," Casillo said. "And I mean literally saved five lives…when you change your first life, save your first lif,e there is no looking back. This is what I’m supposed to do."
For Casillo, Battle Dawgs means working year-round, inspiring and helping America’s heroes get back to their peaks. Because like the Iditarod, there's the journey and the destination -- and he's determined to help get them where they need to be.
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