A national veterans volunteer group is helping a Talkeetna veterans nonprofit organization Firewise their property.

Team Rubicon members respond after natural disasters like hurricanes or wildfires to clear trees and help people get back into their homes. 

Members are honing their skills as sawyers at Battle Dawgs camp tucked into the woods outside Talkeetna.

“We might not be pulling people out of rubble or picking someone up off a glacier but Team Rubicon is saving people emotionally for sure,” said Anna Greene.

Greene is an Alaska Air National Guard member based at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Her arm is tattooed with the Twin Towers, her inspiration for joining the military.

“I was in first grade, but seeing that as a kid, watching the coverage, it kind of changes the way you view your childhood, I think,” Green said. “So that resounded pretty strongly with me as a kid.”

She spends part of her time volunteering with Team Rubicon. She and the other team members are spending a week clearing dozens of dead spruce and other rotting trees.

“We saw the need because it’s a beautiful property,” said Battle Dawgs founder Rick Casillo. “We have 650 acres here and unfortunately we got hit pretty hard with the beetle kill and it’s a major fire hazard.”

Casillo is an Iditarod musher who started the Battle Dawgs nonprofit to give veterans a place to find peace.

“We really focus on combat warfighters. Guys that have deployed, been outside the wire and are struggling with PTS, TBIs — traumatic brain injuries — and of course the high suicide rate in our veteran community,” Casillo explained.

Team Rubicon is using the work as a training opportunity to teach new sawyers the proper techniques they’ll use when they’re deployed to a disaster area.

“We started in Florida after Hurricane Michael in October. We were still there in March helping people gain access to their homes and also helping the community respond,” said Lead Sawyer Dave LaRivee.

While civilians work with the nonprofit too, LaRivee said a majority of their members are veterans. Team Rubicon’s mission is to give those who have served a sense of community they may be missing after they’ve left the military. 

“By the end of the day people are talking about, this is the first time I’ve been able to hold it together for three days in a row. People might say, ‘I’m no longer thinking about suicide. I’ve found a team, I’ve found a new purpose.’ So it’s actually pretty life-changing,” LaRivee said.

For Greene, volunteering with this crew is a different way to serve.

“In coming together this way you have the benefit of helping someone else in need but also helping yourself with some level of therapy almost,” she said.

Casillo said the crews’ work put him two years ahead of schedule if he had to do the work himself. Most of the trees will be cut up for firewood. Casillo said they’ll try to salvage any logs that might make good lumber for building.

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