Air Force Officer Looks to Mush Dogs in Iditarod

Maj. Roger Lee practices with his sled dogs for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska. (Courtesy photo)
Maj. Roger Lee practices with his sled dogs for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska. (Courtesy photo)

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Snow and trees are all that can be seen for miles while the bitter cold nips at any piece of exposed skin. Maj. Roger Lee can almost taste the frost touching his warm breath as he yells "mush" to command his 16 dogs to trudge across the vast landscape, breaking the deafening silence of his surroundings.

Lee, a 60th Aerospace Medicine Squadron bioenvironmental engineering operations officer, is on a mission to achieve his dream of participating in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

The Iditarod, known as "the last great race," is an annual, long distance trek that takes place in early March from Anchorage, Alaska, to Nome, Alaska. Participants control a sled pulled by as many as 16 dogs during the course of nine to 15 days.

Training for a high-endurance sport such as dog sledding involves an extensive amount of physical preparation.

"The physical part of the race isn't difficult for me because I have made it a priority to maintain a high level of fitness during my Air Force career," Lee said. "I participate in the Air Force cycling team and I have always volunteered at Outdoor Recreation, leading trips such as kayaking and hiking."

Attempting to complete a long distance race under cold climate conditions also involves mental preparation.

"It's just like being in the military mindset of knowing your equipment, knowing your people and being aware that you have more to do than what is going on at that moment," Lee said. "The mental aspect of preparing for a thousand-mile race in temperatures than can drop below zero degrees is the hardest part because you have to believe in your equipment, your dogs and yourself."

The race of more than one thousand miles can vary depending on added detours to avoid thin ice or other dangers along the way.

"It's essentially 1,000 miles -- plus 49 miles," Lee said, "representing Alaska being the 49th state."

The first step for Lee to achieve his goal is to participate in a qualifying race that takes place this month. Three races must be completed before gaining access to participate in the Iditarod.

"The goal is to finish the race," Lee said. "I want to focus on caring for the dogs and then just finishing so I can participate in the big race."

While stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Lee volunteered every year at the Iditarod and met Scott Janssen, a participant and mortician, who became something of a mentor to Lee.

"I met (Janssen) while I was volunteering at the 2012 Iditarod," Lee said. "He was wearing a Beatles hat, which, being from Liverpool, was a talking point for us. He extended an invitation to train with him if I ever became serious about competing."

Janssen, known as the "Mushin' Mortician' " due to his occupation, speaks highly of Lee's commitment to train and participate in the Iditarod.

"Roger is a great person," Janssen said. "He is very positive and detail oriented. He also is obviously a very dedicated person who set his mind to a goal and works hard to achieve it."

Lee wants to encourage Airmen to take advantage of the opportunities the military provides.

"I get my excitement fill from outdoor recreation and I've been volunteering with the base outdoor recs for my whole career," Lee said. "I have even taken a hiking trip in a blizzard on a Saturday near Lake Tahoe and then on Sunday, it was 75 degrees. We were sea kayaking in Sausalito (California) down and around the Golden Gate Bridge. You can surprise yourself with what's around where you are."

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