When Rick Casillo heard the stories of the wounded veterans around the campfire in Alaska, his awe and respect for the soldiers grew to great proportions. “I wanted to be in the Marines so badly out of high school,” said Casillo. “I was turned down five times because of all the inner-ear surgeries I had as a kid.” Though his medical history precluded him from a military career, his patriotism and respect for those who serve never waned.
Mark, an amputee veteran and senior citizen, sends Rick $20 a month to support his dog racing in Alaska’s Iditarod. Casillo thought of him and all the others who would be checking online for the updated results during last winter’s race. When the going got tough—tougher than anything he ever experienced before—he thought of them.
At last year’s Bear Camp with Alaska’s Healing Hearts months before the race, Casillo cried more times hearing the warriors’ stories than the last 20 years combined. “We just can’t comprehend what these dudes have to go through,” said Casillo. That is why Mark’s words, words from a wounded combat veteran, meant so much. “You’re an inspiration to me,” Mark told the weather-hardened musher. Rick was perplexed.
“Are you kidding me? You’re an inspiration to me,” was all he could think—and say. Casillo replied similarly to all the veterans who sent words of encouragement and supported Rick as he prepared for his own battle mission: the eight- to nine-day Iditarod, a 1,000-mile dog-sled race across Alaska’s tundra.
The run in March was epic. Though the race was completed in record-breaking time, that doesn’t mean it was a breeze. “It was such a fast time I don’t think we’ll ever break that record,” shared Rick. The teams ran on glare ice and no snow cover. “The dogs had good footing, perfect to dig in on the dirt.” But the conditions pummeled Rick and his equipment. “I’m pretty sure that the Farewell Burn is where Satan lives. I crashed at least 50 times in there alone.”
After that stretch, Casillo and the other mushers were shaken, coming in to the checkpoint and asking each other, “What is going on?” The route, selected by the Iditarod committee, was brutal. “Usually it is tough, but this was—let’s just say I disagreed with their decision on the route they chose. Everyday was survival.”
During those challenging times on a grueling course, punishing the body as well as the spirit, Rick Casillo thought of the wounded warriors he had met prior. “I want to say this in the most humble way that I can, but those guys told me I was a Superman. They respect what I do and can’t really comprehend it, either. In a way, it is how we feel about their service.”
Most of us don’t fully understand military deployment, serving in war, or answering the call to pay the ultimate price, if necessary. That is why many of us highly respect and value our veterans. And they found that same connection with Rick Casillo.
Rick has re-branded his racing team as Battle Dawgs to honor them, and races as a pro staffer for Alaska’s Healing Hearts (AHH). AHH is a non-profit organization using outdoor hunting and fishing trips in Alaska to help wounded veterans heal.
“I have a trust and a bond with the warriors now,” said Rick from this year’s bear camp at Alaska’s Harvest Bed & Breakfast near Palmer. Casillo’s own passion is fly fishing. While on the dreaded run through Farewell Burn last year, feeling beat-up and spent, the musher made a decision. “I told myself during one of the lowest points last March, I’m going to use this passion for something to help our warriors.” He followed through. Now he donates trips to warriors; he takes them up to his camp and teaches them how to harness the dogs or put booties on. They can run the dogs if they want to. Battle Dawgs is another vessel for the same mission.
The team’s glacier-bound camp is a phenomenal place. On June 1, they had a blizzard that dumped five feet of snow. “It’s pretty crazy. I live there, and I’m still blown away by how incredible it is,” said Rick. “The guys really like coming up and experiencing either a day trip or an overnight on the glacier with me.”
There is a new passion for Rick. “The guys always say, ‘it’s our job,’ when you talk about their deployment and the hardships they go through,” said the musher. “And they look up to me? Holy cow.”
K.J. Houtman is the author of the award-winning Fish On Kids Books series, chapter books for eight- to 12-year-olds with adventures based around fishing, camping, and hunting. Her work is available at Amazon and local bookstores. Find out more at fishonkidsbooks.com.
Images courtesy Rick Casillo