OTHER LIVES: BRITTEN WALKER

There are a few occupations in the world in which getting killed could stand directly in the way of cashing your next pay check. Soldiers in Iraq qualify as one such job. A soldier in Iraq looking for roadside land mines, or rooting out insurgents—a seemingly benign word for someone that is trying to kill you—isn’t thinking about the politics of the situation or even if their presence in that foreign place is right or wrong. They are trying to save their troop members’ lives as well as their own.In this installment of “Other Lives” we introduce you to musher and soldier, Britten Walker. Originally from Buffalo, New York, Britten has been deployed to two of the most hostile environments one can imagine: Afghanistan, on the Pakistan border for 10 months and Iraq, for 1 year. Britten now lives in Willow, AK just down the road from the Mushing Magazine office. Britten has had his own dogs and has been mushing for 3 years now, but his mushing time has been severely limited due to being deployed overseas for long stretches. Keeping a medium size kennel of 30 dogs, he shares the work load with his wife Angela. With his tour of duty in active combat over, and only 1 year of enlistment left, Britten hopes to be able to spend more time with his wife, 6 children, and sled dogs. His goal over the next two years is to qualify for the 2009 Iditarod. Randomly stationed in Anchorage at Fort Richardson in 2001, his first encounter with sled dogs soon followed. “After a friend, showed us around her kennel in Big Lake, and afterward introduced me to Gary Paulsen I was hooked. Gary gave me my first lead dogs that I’m just now phasing out. I sat down with Britten and talked a bit about his experiences in combat, and what life was like. There are many aspects of combat that Britten cannot obviously talk about because of security issues and some other encounters he recalls with stark, matter of fact reality. Here is what he had to say. (Editor’s note: much of this is transcribed from an email written while Britten was still in combat in Iraq back in October.)My job in Iraq for the last year was definitely very interesting and eventful. I have seen many people killed or wounded, both American as well as Iraqi and foreign insurgents, but no one ever said war was fun. First off, I, as well as most of the troops I know, feel that it is time for us to come home. After the big troop buildup of 2007, we could see some positive effects, but I still believe almost all the troops should be pulled out. Most of the war right now consists of convoys down dangerous roads in Iraq. When I first got there it was really hot, daytime temperatures were up to 100F. In late November 2006 it started to get cold and rain a whole bunch. Sometimes the temperature change was so much that we would freeze at night and sweat in the day. Growing up in Buffalo N.Y. I grew up loving the cold and snow. When I got stationed in Alaska I knew it would feel like home. I really hate the heat, which made the summer in Iraq very hard. I did get to come home for R&R in June so I could meet our sixth child, Joy. I was scheduled to get home for her birth, but wasn’t able to make it. While I was home I went on a fishing trip down the Little Willow River with my good friend Gary Paulsen and his handler, Leo. We were looking for King Salmon, but I only caught a Rainbow Trout. Gary has been helping me with dogs for a few years now. He really has been a great friend that has mentored me in so many ways. Also when I was home on R&R I got to meet the Governor of Alaska, Sara Palin, at the Iditarod sign up. That was cool. In Iraq, as soon as you drive out to start any particular mission, you start praying that it’s not your time to hit a roadside IED (Improvised Explosive Device). The IED is truly our biggest fear. Half the time there is nothing you can do to stop them. You can’t see them, they just blow up seemingly out of nowhere. They take people so fast, good people that have wives, children, brothers, and sisters. It’s just so sad. I hate it even more when I think of their kids. I just hope that my children will never have to feel the pain that so many others have felt. IED’s can be anything from mortar rounds and shells, to homemade bombs of fertilizer, TNT, or plastic explosives. Any of these devices can be either remotely detonated via wireless instruments such as cell phones or garage door openeners, or via command wire which means someone is at the other end of the wire close by. These ungodly devices are also sometimes detonated by pressure plate, through crude electronic circuits. We had no set schedule in our day to day lives over there and there was no such thing as a day off. When you were told it’s time to go on a mission, you go out on mission. That’s that, no ifs, ands or buts about it. Sometimes we had a few days to plan sometimes we didn’t. Sometimes we went out for a day or two sometimes we would go out for a week. My job was very different from the normal infantry man. I’m a Scout. My job as a Scout is to observe and gather intelligence on the local people as well as try to eliminate the insurgents based on intelligence or just based on the reality that we were being shot at. The team has a team leader and RTO which is the soldier in charge of the platoon’s communication. That was my job. This was not an easy task because we had so many different forms of modern day communications. The team also has snipers, and recon members. I have spent many sleepless nights out in areas that have the highest level of enemy hidden. We just waited and watched for the insurgents to try to plant IED’s along the road. I was really there just to try and save my buddies lives. Stopping the enemy from planting an IED means you have to be hiding, sometimes for days in the perfect spot at the perfect time. If the Scout team can see an insurgent placing an IED, and the sniper team can take the shot, then they will. During a scouting mission into one of the most hostile areas and an insurgent’s stronghold, I broke a bone in my right wrist. (Editor’s note: “scouting mission” means “I can’t tell you any more detail due to your rank and security clearance,” which is magazine publisher and zero, respectively). I didn’t know it was broken. It hurt but I kept on going out on missions until I couldn’t take the pain anymore. A doctor took a look and then sent me to get some X-rays in the Green Zone, which was my first time there. Even in the Green Zone I never let my guard down, something that will take a long time to go away I guess. I sat next to the emergency room waiting to see the specialist for my wrist, and I couldn’t get over the amount of wounded troops that were being brought in day and night. It never stopped. It seemed to me that a Blackhawk Helicopter landed at least every half hour with more severely wounded. It’s just too much pain. To much dying going on all the time. I was sent home to Alaska to have surgery.With all my military training in Alaska as well as growing up hiking and playing every sport that I could, I feel I have some of the tools necessary to win the Iditarod. I have a lot going for me. I will never give up. I know what it takes to train harder than the next guy. I have lived my life in the Army on combat tours where you go on for days with very little sleep. I’m in great physical shape and I plan on bringing everything I have to do what it takes to win. From laying out all my gear and making sure it all works, to making sure my dogs are taken care of, I feel I have the mental strength to do it. My dogs are like my troops. I will train them to my standard and hope that with the right love and care they will give me even more. My short term goal is to run a qualification race this winter. My long term goal is to win the Iditarod, the Quest and get into mushing, hunting, fishing and guiding businesses. Our kennel name is Walker’s Sled Dog Kennel, and we really could sponsorship help for this year’s training and the 2009 Iditarod. We are determined to make it whichever way we can. Britten Walker can be reached via email at: Britten_Walker@yahoo.com

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