At a lodge in Big Lake, Alaska, a couple is offering combat veterans a path toward healing through experiences with sled dogs and the surrounding wilderness. Up to 20 percent of veterans have post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, in a given year, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (Watch the 'Battle Dawgs' video to learn more.)
"The true battle for a veteran begins when he gets home," says Jennifer Casillo, a U.S. Air Force combat veteran, lieutenant colonel with the Alaska Air National Guard, and helicopter pilot. Casillo and her husband Rick co-founded Battle Dawgs to help wounded veterans cope, but the experience is also open to service members who have never seen combat.
Service members can join camps lasting from one to several days. The camps are "mission-oriented," according to the website: Teams receive essential gear, a operational briefing, and then focus on daily structured tasks. Iditarod camp puts veterans in the pit crew for Rick Casillo, who is a professional musher, as he prepares for the thousand-mile annual sled race. The team helps feed and care for the sled dogs, attends the start of the race, and flies out to race checkpoints. Other sessions offer mushing lessons, sightseeing tours, ice fishing and hiking.
"A lot of the veterans think that they're alone," says Matthew Berth, a veteran who's been to Battle Dawgs camps and says working with the sled team helped him feel more loved and more alive. "You can look into a dog's eyes and that dog will never hate you, will never talk back to you, will always love you."