By Russell Toof
Two Army veterinarians from Public Health Command Europe recently volunteered to travel to Alaska to support one of the most physically demanding sporting events in the world, the Iditarod.
The Iditarod is a nearly 1,000-mile sled dog race that has been held every March since 1973.
“I was introduced to the Iditarod by another Veterinary Corps officer back in 2015,” said Maj. Rachel Acciacca, a regional veterinary clinical consultant with Public Health Command Europe.
“I was fortunate to support the pre-race veterinary checks and race start in 2015 and again in 2017. This year, I was selected to serve as a race veterinarian out along the austere Iditarod trail where the mushers check-in for resupply, rest and [we perform] veterinary exams on their dogs.”
Acciacca provided physical examinations on sled dogs arriving through the checkpoint, veterinary support and guidance to mushers and ongoing field hospital care for sled dogs that were unable to continue with the race. She also treated sled dogs who were dealing with illness and injury.
Acciacca was joined by Maj. Gretchen Powers, the chief of outpatient services at Veterinary Medical Center Europe.
“I have followed the race for years and had been looking forward to the opportunity to volunteer as soon as I met eligibility requirements,” Powers said.
“There is an application process for interested veterinarians who are selected based on experience with sled dogs and other canine athletes. Each year the race accepts some ‘rookie’ veterinarians to join the remaining veteran crew.”
Powers took part in the pre-race exams for several teams the week before the race. Just like Acciacca, she examined the dogs as they passed through her assigned checkpoint.
Teams generally race through blizzards which can cause whiteout conditions, sub-zero temperatures and gale-force winds. Mushers are required to discuss their dog team status with veterinarians at every trail checkpoint.
“My checkpoint was very remote with a minimalistic arctic tent camp,” Acciacca said. “We had a severe windstorm that prevented the supporting aircraft from accessing our site for a few days, so we had to get creative in preserving and protecting our gear and supplies while continuing to provide around-the-clock veterinary care for the supported sled dogs.”
Acciacca specializes in small animal emergency and critical care medicine and believes her military background prepared her to provide emergency and life-saving care in the Iditarod’s remote and austere conditions.
Powers’s background and interests in canine sports medicine also proved to be valuable.
“My work with military working dogs (MWDs) translated well to these elite athletes,” Powers said. “Like MWDs, sled dogs are built for performance and have different nutritional and conditioning needs than most dogs.”
Both Acciacca and Powers enjoyed the experience and said they would volunteer again if given the opportunity.
“The health of the dogs truly is the number one priority throughout the event,” Powers said. “I enjoyed learning from the mushers, veterinarians, and other longtime race volunteers. It was a very rewarding experience and I plan to continue being involved throughout my career.”
-This article was originally published by Army.mil. It has been edited for USO.org.
More Stories Like This
From Combat Deployments to Event Security, Nothing Can Break This K9 Military Dog and Handler's Bond
Meet a military working dog handler and his K9 warrior, Pearl, who have served together for over six years.
You Know What They Say: 'A National Guardsman is a Dog’s Best Friend'
When a National Guard nurse was met with a very unique medical case, he let his instincts take over and saved his K-9 patient’s life.
Behind the Ruff Life of Marine Military Working Dog Handlers and Future K9 Veterans
March 13 might be K9 Veterans Day, but when you rely on your teammate as much as Marine military working dog handlers rely on their canine partners, every day is a dog day worth celebrating.
More from the USO
Sep 22, 2021
‘Miles Apart But Still in My Heart’: USO Supporter Crafts Cards for Service Members and Military Families
Americans have been mailing cards to members of the U.S. military for decades, hoping to lift the spirits of those serving our country away from home. But USO supporter Sharon Ware takes a different approach ¬– she shows her love for our nation’s military not by mailing cards, but by making them by hand and sharing them with the USO.
Sep 21, 2021
What is it Like to Be a USO Supporter in Alaska?
Whether staff members are catching a C-17 to fly out to Bethel, Alaska, or taking a two-day journey by land and sea to Cordova, Alaska, the USO Alaska team is ready to support service members and military families, no matter where their journey takes them in the state.
Sep 20, 2021
Meet the USO’s Global Ambassadors and Learn Why They Give More Than Thanks
For decades, actors, musicians, athletes and entertainers have joined the USO in supporting the troops. Now, the USO introduces the new USO Global Ambassadors who will act as a bridge between the civlian and military communities, and help raise awareness for the USO's crucial mission: Wilmer Valderrama and Kellie Pickler.