SEMBACH, Germany -- 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 in 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 veterinary exams on their dogs.”
Acciacca provided physical examinations on sled dogs arriving through the checkpoint, provided veterinary support and guidance to mushers, treated sled dogs who were dealing with illness and injury, and provided ongoing field hospital care for sled dogs that were unable to continue with the race.
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,” said Powers. “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 also examined the dogs as they passed through her assigned checkpoint.
Teams generally race through blizzards causing 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,” said Acciacca. “We had a severe wind storm 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’s veterinary specialty is Small Animal Emergency and Critical Care Medicine and she believes her background in the military prepared her to provide emergency and life-saving care in remote and austere conditions.
Powers’ background and interests in canine sports medicine also proved to be valuable.
“My work with Military Working Dogs translated well to these elite athletes,” said Powers. “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.
“I had a blast providing emergency veterinary care for elite international sled dog athletes under the Northern lights in -30 degree wind storm conditions while coordinating bush-plane medical evacuation flights with our great team of volunteers,” said Acciacca.
“The health of the dogs truly is the number one priority throughout the event,” added Powers. “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.”