By Steve Burke – Editor-in-Chief, Pinkston News Service
(Pinkston News Service)—Last month, a group of four Alaskan veterans, including one triple purple heart recipient, set out on snowmobiles to take part in what is billed as “the world’s longest, toughest snowmobile race.” Not to be confused with Iditarod, the Iron Dog Race features more than 20 pro class teams racing across nearly 3,000 miles through the Alaskan backcountry. With thousands of dollars in prize money at stake, Team 87 Battle Buddies were not concerned about first place or even the cash. They had a singular, alternative mission; to connect with every veteran in the state.
Starting in the town of Wasilla on February 17 and ending in Nome on the 22, the Iron Dog expedition route passed through small towns and villages across rural Alaska, providing Team 87 the opportunity to connect with fellow veterans in these harder-to-reach communities. Between refuel and overnight stops, the team leveraged the competition as a way to bridge relationships with local vets.
“We wanted to show our veterans that we’re here for them, not the race,” said Jessy Lakin, combat veteran and Team 87’s Director of Operations. “I started with 500 business cards at the beginning of the race, and they were gone by the time we reached our last stop,” Lakin added.
Through five days of rugged terrain, Team 87, in partnership with Alaska Warrior Partnership (AKWP), was able to connect with more than 500 families in 20 different villages. Alaska’s Warrior Partnership, an affiliate of America’s Warrior Partnership (www.americaswarriorpartnership.org), is a veteran-focused, community-led initiative dedicated to ending veteran suicide by ensuring that veterans living in remote parts of Alaska have information and access to healthcare, housing, employment and other services necessary to improve their quality of life.
Despite battling harsh weather conditions, the four-person snowmachine team, which included Army veterans David “Frankie” Navarro, Jeremiah Brewington and Charlie Potter, along with Marine Corps veteran Shawn Rich, handed out pamphlets, gathered names and spoke to crowds by the hundreds. Word about their presence spread so fast that by their second stop, families were lined up to greet them. Their objective was to let every veteran know about the resources available to them and send a message that help is available no matter where they live.
“We knew that reaching veterans off the road system and in remote areas of Alaska would take out-of-the-box thinking,” said Amanda Marr, Alaskan veteran and AKWP Program Lead. “Our partnership with the race team allowed us to connect with remote veterans to ensure they have access to all available resources.”
Of the more than 17 million veterans living in the United States, roughly a quarter, 4.7 million, reside in rural communities, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Alaska has more than 57,000 veterans, the most per capita in the U.S., with an estimated 26,000 living in harder-to-reach areas. And while veteran suicide is a major national problem, the issue can be particularly acute in rural areas where veterans often lack internet and easy access to support services. According to the VA’s 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, approximately 17 U.S. veterans die every day by suicide.
When he crossed the finish line in Nome, Jeremiah Brewington told Alaska’s News Source, “we’re here, other veterans are here. We want to help. We want to pick up our brothers and sisters and carry them with us to the finish line.”
Team 87 plans to follow up with the connections made throughout the race and continue to create and sustain relationships with veterans in these towns. They have also been invited to participate in next year’s race.
The real work starts now,” said Lakin. “It’s time to really show them that we’re here to support.”
Service members and veterans in need of help can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or go to www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.