Troops to the Tracks

Feature: A day at the speedway with 22 airmen and the drivers who love them
Photo credit: Ellison Barber

Photo credit: Ellison Barber

BY:

At the Dover International Speedway, 22 members of the U.S. Air Force stood in front of NASCAR driver Kurt Busch’s red and black Stewart-Haas Chevy.  They were not there to lead the national anthem or carry the flag, but as guests of “Troops to the Track,” a program founded by Patricia Driscoll, of the Armed Forces Foundation, nearly five years ago.

Troops to the Track brings service members, active duty, reserves, and guardsmen, to NASCAR races to help them overcome the hardships associated with their jobs, and for many, the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

“We actually started with Michael Waltrip Racing and Aaron’s Corporation,” Driscoll said. As the program grew, with help from people like Richard Childress, NASCAR took notice and became an official partner in 2011. Thus was born “NASCAR Troops to the Track, presented by Bank of America, in partnership with the Armed Forces Foundation.” NASCAR and the Armed Forces Foundation will take servicemen and women to 26 races this year.

“They always invite thousands of troops to the tracks anyways, but [NASCAR] wanted to do something very special. So what I told them is that we have so many guys suffering from PTSD … being able to come to a place where they’re going to experience a lot of crowds—it’s scary for them. The sights, the sounds, the smells can bring back a lot of bad memories, but the only way to get rid of those bad memories is to erase them with something positive,” Driscoll said.

The program is considered “recreational group therapy,” and Driscoll acknowledges that there is a risk in placing some of the veterans in an environment with possible triggers.

“You’ll see a lot of them with fireworks or a car firing up—that noise and sometimes just the crowds themselves freak people out, but we have special people within our group that are also veterans that have been through it that can talk them through it,” she said. “We have safe places within the garage and different haulers that we can take them to find a quiet place to kind of just talk them through their fears, but again the only way to get past these fears is to continue to experience good things and to be out.”

As Driscoll talked about the need to replace the associations of those fear, she noted, “There’s nothing more positive than being in this garage with these fans, who are obviously some of the most patriotic fans in sports.”

That was apparent throughout the day.

Numerous fans, drivers, and workers, from security to the people checking tickets at the gates, came up to thank the men in uniform.

Photo credit: Ellison Barber

Photo credit: Ellison Barber

In Dover, the soldiers attending the race as a part of Troops to the Track were deployed at Dover Air Force Base. Most serve at the port mortuary.

As the sole port mortuary in the United States, these soldiers take on the difficult task of receiving and returning all of the fallen Department of Defense personnel to their families.

Maj. Jennifer Piggott, who serves as the Chief of Public Affairs at the port mortuary, told the Free Beacon that there are about 30 deployers in the port mortuary right now.

“Deployers are the ones who do the dignified transfers and the transfers of the remains. … We come in, we do this for 6 to 8 months, then we rotate it through so no one person is doing a dignified transfer for an extended amount of time because of the toll it takes.”

Many of those from the base at the race were junior airmen, Piggott noted.

“They’ve been in the Air Force for two years or less and this is their first deployment,” she said. “It’s a really hard deployment, but it’s one that will stay with them though their entire careers, because what they’re seeing now most people never see.”

Due to the nature of the work, many felt Troops to the Track provided the soldiers with an emotional release.

“It’s a good break,” said Master Sgt. Joshua Nenscel. “Resiliency wise it keeps your morale up, and you know you feel bad having fun and then going back to doing what you’re doing, but it’s definitely good to get away.”

However, the break was short lived. All but five of the group had to leave shortly after the race began to receive a body.

“Later on this afternoon we have what is called the dignified transfer,” Piggott said.

“It’s a solemn movement where we honorably transport remains from an aircraft to a transfer vehicle and then they’re transported to the mortuary where the Armed Forces medical examiners do the autopsy and then they come back to the mortuary for the embalmment, preparing remains, wrapping remains, dressing remains, and casketing the remains, so they leave the port mortuary in an absolute perfect state, as best we can, to return them honorably to their families,” she said.

“We’ll stay with them throughout the whole process until they leave the mortuary,” Piggott continued, “at that point they go with a military escort from the branch of service of the fallen to return them to the final resting place with their families.”

While at the track, the group was able to interact with the drivers and see where they stay, the work that goes on in the garages to get the cars race ready, and the action from pit row.

Photo credit: Ellison Barber

Photo credit: Ellison Barber

Driver Aric Almirola, who is sponsored by the Air Force, spent time talking with each service member.

“It’s a great privilege to have that opportunity to meet with these men and women who serve our country so passionately, and sacrifice so much,” he said.

Another highlight for the airmen was meeting Kurt Busch, the winner of 25 Sprint Cup Races and the 2004 champion.

When the group first met up with Busch, Admiral James Winnefeld, the

Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, joined them.

Winnefeld greeted them, presented each troop with a challenge coin, and spoke with Busch and Driscoll.

“It’s a great honor for us to be here today,” Winnefeld told the Free Beacon. “Certainly to meet Kurt Busch, because [Busch and Driscoll] are so supportive of all of our service members and their families.”

For Busch the dedication of service members and the struggles they face has become personal. Busch, who dates Driscoll, serves as a spokesmen and ambassador of the Armed Forces Foundation. It is in his pit box where the troops watch the race.

For three years Busch has dedicated each race to a solider. This one was no exception. Prior to starting, Busch and Driscoll hovered behind his car to place a sticker with the name of PFC Jason Carlson.

Carlson, Busch said, served in Desert Storm in 1993. He was working as a flight attendant on September 11, 2001. The events of that day inspired him to re-enlist in the military. He served with the US Army until he medically retired; Carlson suffers from PTSD.

“From the time of his discharge to current day, Jason has been hospitalized on three separate occasions to be treated for his illness,” Busch noted.

Busch began dedicating his races three years ago. “It was something I wanted to do,” he said. “Just my small part in recognizing service members and veterans for their sacrifice and drawing attention to their daily struggles.”

Busch said his favorite part of the race is getting to visit with the troops just before he gets into his car.

“For me, it’s very nostalgic being surrounded by the people who defend our freedoms. … I hope they have a good time and I can put on a good performance for them. It really drives me knowing that I have troops there in my pit box watching the race,” he said.

Ellison Barber   Email Ellison | Full Bio | RSS
Ellison Barber is a staff writer for the Washington Free Beacon, where she pens a daily column "Ellison's Must Read of the Day" and a weekly "Sunday Show Roundup." As a reporter, she covers Capitol Hill. Ellison is a regular panelist on The Blaze's "Real News." She graduated from Wofford College, has great taste in music, and currently lives in Washington, D.C. Her twitter handle is @ellisonbarber.