Racing kennel offers battle weary adventures to cherish
On an early summer day last year, Rebekah White landed via helicopter on the Colony Glacier and took in the sights: a pack of happy, excited dogs, ready to launch she and her fellow soldiers onto the dogsled ride of their lives high in the Alaska backcountry.
It was a scene she could never have imagined herself being part of, but one that has since been etched in her memory.
“I never expected what would happen next,” White recalls of that May 30, 2013, trip offered by Alaska’s Healing Hearts. “I went out to the glacier and it was absolutely amazing.”
That is exactly what four-time Iditarod veteran Rick Casillo and his wife, Jennifer, who own and operate Palmer-based Aurora Heli-Expeditions wanted to happen. The Casillos recently broadened their mission to go beyond providing the average summer tourist with a thrilling helicopter flight and glacier dog-sled ride. They also changed the name of their professional racing kennel to reflect this added purpose.
Now known as Battle Dawgs Racing, the Casillos kennel honors and brings attention to the cause for which Rick will now race—the military’s wounded and battle weary. The kennel has teamed up with Anchorage nonprofit Alaska’s Healing Hearts, an organization that helps the wounded and battle weary rehabilitate through outdoor connections.
“Pet it, ride it, drive it. If it has wheels on it and hair on it, it’s an attractor,” said James Hastings, AHH director of operations, and a retired U.S. Army veteran.
Because service members move around a lot, they often feel like they don’t belong anywhere, and their families often can’t find common interests in which to participate, Hastings said.
“The outdoors is that commonality,” Hastings said. “We do what is asked of us, but also add new and challenging options. That’s where Rick comes in. He approached us wanting to help.”
Rick Casillo, 40, is the musher and outdoors enthusiast, originally from Alden, a small town near Buffalo, N.Y. Wife, Jennifer, 39, makes up the military connection, and it was her experiences that inspired the new kennel and business vision. Raised in Western Colorado, Jennifer Casillo graduated from Colorado State and was commissioned into the U.S. Air Force as an aircraft maintenance officer. She served for six years on active duty in Combat Search and Rescue stateside and overseas.
After leaving the Air Force, she became a reservist and pursued a career as a civilian helicopter pilot. She now serves in the Alaska Air National Guard as an aircraft maintenance operations officer assigned to the 176th Rescue Wing at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
The couple married in 2010. Now, through providing dog sled tours and excursions free to AHH participants, they combine both of their life experiences for a greater purpose.
“Having witnessed first hand the long-term effects of war on our military men and women, Rick and I are committed to making Battle Dawgs Racing a healing grounds for their rehabilitation,” Jennifer Casillo said. “For a wounded veteran, the true battle begins when they get home.”
That’s what happened to White, who was honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy after serving six years active duty as an E-5 Air Traffic Controller. While White didn’t suffer the effects of combat, she has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, brought on not only by the stresses of war, but also through other tragedies in her life. An astounding 22 individuals that she knew while in the military died in car accidents, airplane crashes, and training mishaps. That on top of being a victim of military sexual trauma, or MST, while at her first duty station resulted in a form of PTSD that causes insomnia, hyper-vigilance, and makes it difficult for her to initially trust people and situations.
In 2012 White participated in one of AHH’s other programs, a spring bear camp.
“I went out there and found the camaraderie I had been missing after discharging from the military,” said White. “I was honestly in the depths of despair. James Hastings and his wife, Mary, and the others that were invited showed me that there is life and fun after trauma. They saved my life.”
The dog-mushing trip offered the same relief, she said.
Army Sgt. Steve Shumaker was also part of the mushing trip.
“As the helicopter landed, the first thing I noticed was how many dogs there were,” Shumaker said. “I was surprised by them and how active they looked to be.”
Shumaker, 37, is stationed at Ft. Lewis, Wash., and has served more than three years combined duration in combat zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was injured during training when the helicopter on which he was a crewmember “landed hard” – military speak for crash-landed.
“The (dog sled) tour was really special,” Shumaker continued. “I really had a desire to meet each one of the dogs and when I asked if I could go and meet them all, Rick happily agreed.”
U.S. Army Master Sgt. CJ Dugan described the trip as “a once-over of the world of dog mushing.” Dugan, 36 of Pinehurst, N.C., sustained a traumatic brain injury in a grenade attack in Mosul, Iraq, in 2009, and suffers the effects of several subsequent injuries – he said he still has a piece of shrapnel imbedded in him where it squeezed between his body armor and shoulder blade.
“I had never been around anything like mushing in my life,” Dugan said. “I found the similarities in [Rick’s] sled dogs and my experience with military working dogs to be very familiar. They both have a very high drive and need to be a part of something. I see that same thing in the military warriors that have a bond that sometimes is stronger than even blood.”
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the daily suicide rate of military veterans is 22 per day.
“My biggest desires would be 20 years from now, someone who was in danger of being one of those 22 will tell about their time in Alaska to their kids,” Hastings said. “I want [AHH] to be a saving grace, and memories to stick in their place.”
Needless to say, the military men and women who have crossed path with the Casillos are now ardent supporters of the couple’s Iditarod dreams. When Rick Casillo hits the trail in this year’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, they will be cheering him on from the sidelines.
“I personally would love to start a dog team of my own,” said White, “but I am in college, and that takes a lot of work and money.” For now though White said she would gladly volunteer to help the Battle Dawgs Racing cause.
At the Casillos’ winter kennel, the veterans are playing an integral role in helping the Battle Dawgs Race team train and prepare for the 2014 Iditarod.
“However they can or want to be involved, our kennel is open to them,” said Rick Casillo. “My ideal would be to one day have a combat wounded vet get qualified and run Iditarod with me.”