Iron Warriors: The next mission
Four of our nation’s bravest run the Iron Dog to remind veterans that they are not alone
WASILLA, Alaska (KTUU) - It was a quiet Sunday morning on Feb. 6 at the Tug Bar down Knik Goose Bay Road, as a group of eight met over a buffet-style breakfast before unloading snowmachines from their respective trailers in the back parking lot. And while a lot of Alaskans spend their winter weekends meeting up with friends to go snowmachining, this ride was different.
Life after service
Jeremiah Brewington served 17 years in the United States Army as a construction engineer. After separating in 2013 he struggled mentally and emotionally to cope with the loss of brotherhood that came with active service. Thankfully, Jeremiah had been given the tools to recognize that he needed to reach out for help, but this isn’t always the case in the veteran community. According to a 2021 National Veteran Suicide Prevention annual report put out by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, an average of 17.2 veterans a day committed suicide in 2019.
“That’s such a bad feeling, to feel alone. It’s so hard,” Brewington said. “And it’s a hard one to climb out of once you’re in it.”
Brewington called Jessy Lakin, the director of operations for Battle Dawgs — a nonprofit organization aimed at helping warriors through outdoor experience founded by Iditarod musher Rick Castillo. He told Lakin that he was in a bad place and needed to get refocused.
“Within the next day he’s like ‘we’ve got a mission to go down the Alpine Creek Lodge,” Brewington said. “... We rented some snowmachines and headed down the trail.”
Lakin recalls that the two of them didn’t speak much on that ride down the Denali Highway, but that didn’t matter.
“That mission, the entire time, was not to get supplies,” Lakin said. “It was to keep him from committing suicide.”
Brewington says that the trip to the Battle Dawgs Lodge saved his life.
“That was kind of a wake-up moment for me, saying, ‘hey this was something that I need to do,’” Brewington said. “If riding snowmachines can do this for me, maybe it can do something for somebody else. ... I want to grab a veteran, somebody that might have an issue, and I want to do the, you know, the Iron Dog trail. Bring them out of the funk.”
Building the team
That’s where Charlie Potter comes in. Not only a seven-year combat engineer veteran for the Army, Potter is also a veteran pro racer with 12 years of experience running the Iron Dog snowmachine race.
“That’s the cool part about it,” Lakin said. “Is Charlie’s been struggling to take a warrior. Now we have a warrior that wants to go.”
Lakin had heard rumblings of Potter wanting to take veterans down the Iron Dog trail, but was initially unable to get ahold of him, until one day Potter just happened to walk into the same establishment Lakin was at. Lakin called it fate.
“I turned around and I said ‘Hey are you Charlie Potter?’” Lakin recalled. “... it just began from there.”
The two set up a meeting after their run-in where Potter had his co-worker, Shawn Rich, in tow expressing his own interest in being a part of the all-veterans Iron Dog team. Rich served the United States Marine Corp as a weapons gunner.
“I was all in for it,” Rich said.
Some might say that three’s a crowd, but Potter believes four is a group. He wanted to round out the number of the team, so he called James Hastings, a longtime friend of Potter’s and a member of the board of directors for another nonprofit — Alaska’s Healing Hearts. Potter asked if Hastings knew anybody that might be interested in joining the team, and he did. David “Frankie” Navarro, is a human resource specialist for the Army on the heels of exiting from active duty status and battling separation anxiety.
“All of us have a different background ... and we had different struggles,” Navarro said. “This (has) become a way of overcoming those struggles.”
The four of them now make up Battle Buddies Racing, Team 87. A group of strangers quickly became brothers as they committed to running the expedition class of a snowmachine race considered one of the longest and toughest in the world. Their new mission would be to find other veterans living in the isolated communities along the trail to deliver one important message: they are not alone.
“They’re not forgotten. They don’t not have a team,” Potter said.
And once word started getting out about what their team was setting out to accomplish, the support started rolling in.
“It started as just an idea and now it’s this awesome firestorm,” Brewington said.
An idea that brought the four of them to the Tug Bar that Sunday morning to go for a snowmachine ride together.
Before Team 87 could take off from the start line they needed support, and a lot of it. Running the Iron Dog is expensive — from entry fees and sled modifications, to riding gear. Battle Dawgs and Battle Buddies Racing coined the idea together, but once word started getting out about the group’s mission, other nonprofits started to come forward asking how they could help.
Alaska’s Healing Hearts, Connect Vets, and Alaska Warrior Partnership immediately jumped on board. The partnership echoed the message Team 87 set out to relay in the first place — no one has to do this alone. It was the first time in these organizations’ history that they equally came together to support one group.
Reinforced on the foundation of the supporting nonprofits, the team got to work fundraising, endurance training, and wrenching on the iron. The next thing they knew, they were lined up outside of the Curtis D. Menard Memorial Sports Center, about to cross the start line.
The trail to Nome is never perfect.
“Normal dude says ‘get on a snowmachine and ride to Nome,’ what’s so hard about that?” Brewington said. “It is hard. It is way hard.”
Upon leaving the slush-filled parking lot in Wasilla, the group’s sights were set to go from village to village to collect names and data from veterans along the way. They overnighted in Rainy Pass on the first night with no real issues. But on day two a couple of control arms on as many sleds took a beating, Frankie’s and Jeremiah’s.
“My dad always told me if you’re going to do something, do it right,” Navarro said. “And doing it right is finishing it.”
The team managed to limp into McGrath and immediately started reaching out to the locals for help. After a post on a community Facebook page garnered attention from a local radio station, the guys soon had the parts they needed and a garage to thaw their sleds out before nightfall. Brewington said it was an emotionally and physically taxing day, but quitting wasn’t an option.
“If I have to duct tape that a-arm and use baling wire and superglue to get Nome, I’m doing it,” Brewington said.
From McGrath, the group continued to push their sleds to the limit, as well as their patience.
“I had the moments,” Navarro recalled. “What the hell am I doing? Why am I putting myself through this?”
“I was at a point where I’m like ... this is ridiculous. I can’t go,” Brewington said.
Potter never seemed to doubt that they would be able to complete the mission together, saying that he used the word “scratch” a few times only to light a fire under the others to continue to push forward.
“At points, it’s like you get to where you’re not enjoying it,” Potter said. “... that’s going to happen. You gotta just embrace the suck and keep going. There’s no way around it.”
As the fifth day on the trail grew darker, racers from both pro and expedition classes began arriving in Nome. Finally, after the sun had dipped below the horizon of the Bering Sea, four headlights in the distance grew closer. Lakin waved the checkered flag as one by one, each of the four members making up Team 87 came up off the ice and onto Front Street.
The four of them came to a stop at the finish line they had just crossed together as a team. Brewington laid his forehead on his handlebars for only a moment before getting off his sled to celebrate with his brothers.
“Don’t quit. Just don’t quit,” Brewington said. “... 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.”
Although official numbers have yet to be determined, Lakin said the team collected about 100 names of other veterans on their five-day journey.
“We’re still a brotherhood,” Rich said. “... and we are all out here to help each other.”
That’s 100 warriors who without even realizing it, also became a member of their team.
“Coming out of the military you had your team, you had your chain of command and none of us have that at this point,” Potter said. “... We got our team back. We’re Team 87. Team Battle Buddies Racing.”
If you or someone you know is an Alaskan veteran in need of support, resources are available through Battle Dawgs, Alaska’s Healing Hearts, Connect Vets, and Alaska Warrior Partnership.
Copyright 2022 KTUU. All rights reserved.