If you go to any of the Race to the Sky sled dog activities in the coming week, bring facial tissue.
“It’s probably a three-Kleenex box movie,” Pam Beckstrom said Tuesday of a film called “Always Faithful,” clips of which will be shown at the start and finish lines and at Friday night’s spaghetti dinner at the Lewis and Clark County Fairgrounds in Helena.
The movie is about the more than 5,000 dogs that are working with U.S. military forces overseas in bomb detection and other life-saving endeavors.
Beckstrom and her husband Jack are race organizers who came up with an idea to help them out.
It’s the 70th anniversary of the Camp Rimini Dog Reception and Training Center, nestled in the foothills of MacDonald Pass east of Helena. The camp was used during World War II to train dogs to go to war, with a specific target the invasion of Norway. That never happened, so the more than 800 trained sled and pack dogs were sent to remote areas of Baffinland, Greenland, Antarctica and Alaska on search-and-rescue missions.
“We were looking for something with dogs and the military and we stumbled on the website of U.S. War Dogs Association, Chapter 1,” Jack Beckstrom said. “I heard a couple of reports and we did a little research. They’re very, very active in sending care packages to our deployed dogs and handlers overseas.”
So Montana Sled Dog Inc., the nonprofit that organizes Race to the Sky, is teaming with the War Dogs Association, Chapter 1, to help offset some of the postage costs. U.S. War Dogs told the Beckstroms it will spend more than $80,000 next year simply to ship the care boxes.
A donation of $16.65 will cover the cost of postage to send a large flat-rate box of care items such as toys, dog booties, goggles and cooling vests to a combat unit in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and other U.S. bases overseas.
It’s quite an investment: One war dog saves an average of 150 lives or casualties in a deployment. Some save thousands.
A 15-minute clip of “Always Faithful” will be shown and donations can be made at the various Race to the Sky venues – the dinner in Helena on Friday evening; start lines at Camp Rimini on Saturday and Hi-Country Snack Foods west of Lincoln on Sunday; finish lines at Elk Park on Saturday and Hi-Country on Tuesday; and the 350-mile race awards ceremony at Exploration Works in Helena next Wednesday evening.
“One thing that really tugged at us was these dogs are still classified as ‘excess equipment’ when they’re retired,” Jack Beckstrom said. “They don’t have a lot of dog benefits, and in some cases they end up stranded overseas, put up for adoption or euthanized.
“We just thought, gosh, we need to increase awareness about this. The War Dogs Association has actually pushed legislation through in the last year or so to try and get the dogs transported home, so they’ve had some success in that area. But they haven’t had success getting them reclassified. They’re still classified as ‘excess equipment’ when their military use is used up.”
The film tracks dogs from the time they’re puppies to their military service in Iraq, sniffing out bombs, land mines, mortar shells and improvised explosive devices, Jack Beckstrom said. It documents the bonds that develop between the dogs and their handlers – “real tear-jerking kinds of things … not unlike what happens between the dog mushers and their dogs in the team.”
Pam Beckstrom said the partnership between Race to the Sky and the War Dogs Association seems like a natural, and it will continue beyond this year.
For now, she said, “it’s a cool twist.”
“Basically we’re coming full circle with the Camp Rimini dogs and the 70th anniversary. We’re celebrating the past and celebrating the present.”