With the 16th anniversary of the tragic events of Sept. 11 approaching, the men and women who commit their lives to protect their community and defend the freedom of the nation will be remembered.
The Soldotna Equestrian Association is teaming up with Alaska’s Healing Hearts to put on the inaugural 9/11 Tribute Rodeo this weekend at the Soldotna Rodeo Grounds, and according to organizers, it aims to be a grand way to finish off the summer.
“It’s fun, it’s the challenge, the friendly competition,” said Alaska Healing Hearts co-founder James Hastings. “It’s the getting together to do something that anyone invited feels welcome to do.”
The three-day event kicks off tonight at 6:30 p.m. and continues Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m.
Tickets per day are $10 for general admission, $5 for seniors and kids ages 6 to 12, and free for all active military and veterans, as well as card-carrying emergency service staff. Tickets will also be sold half price with a food bank donation, which can be a cash donation or nonperishable donation.
The final rodeo blast of the summer was organized well in advance this year after efforts to put together a similar function in 2016 came up short due to late scheduling and lack of funding. It is organized with the intent as an annual remembrance of those who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington D.C. on that fateful day 16 years ago, as well as paying tribute to those who currently serve in the various divisions around the country.
One of the highlights of the weekend will be the Guardian’s Challenge, a shoot dogging competition Saturday at 6 p.m. between the U.S. armed forces, troopers, police, firefighters and emergency services staff.
Hastings said shoot dogging challenges the competitor to wrestle a 400- to 500-pound steer to the ground using just the hands. It differs from steer wrestling in that no horses are used to gain purchase from prior to jumping on and wrestling the steer to the ground.
Samantha Jones, Soldotna Equestrian Association secretary, said the competition should provide the crowd with an entertaining show, as well as a bit of bragging rights for the winners.
“Having the guardians in it, it gives them that for a year,” Jones said. “They get a traveling trophy, and it’s a chance for them to be a cowboy for once.”
Jones, 27, grew up in a motocross family — her mother was a Kenai Peninsula Racing Lions president — but was hooked on horses and the rodeo life from a young age, enough that she turned down foreign exchange opportunities in order to be home during the summer to be with her horses. She understands the draw of the sport.
Jones said the prime reason for organizing the 9/11 Tribute Rodeo is to celebrate the constant efforts of local emergency responders and community protectors. With 16 years having passed since the traumatic events of Sept. 11, the generation currently coming of age is one that has no memory of that day.
“It’s too important not to do it,” Jones said. “(9/11) affected so many people, you don’t have to be in the military to be affected by it. We want them to know that we see everybody, and this is our family, our brothers, our sisters, it’s about our nation and our community. That’s why this is special.
“The younger generation needs to know why it’s important, and why they enlisted.”
Hastings, 50, is a 22-year-old Army veteran and current president of the Professional Armed Forces Rodeo Association, which features 19 members in Alaska. He also is a board member of Alaska’s Healing Hearts.
Hastings said this weekend was set up to memorialize the events of 9/11, especially for the younger generation. Hastings pointed out that the rodeo slogan, “United We Stand,” is meant to reinforce the notion that veterans and emergency responders have the support of the community.
“As long as we stay together, we stand together,” Hastings said. “We felt like that was an important thing.”
Among the many being honored this weekend is Charlie Potter, 34, an Army veteran from Wasilla that makes frequent trips to the peninsula for rodeo events. Potter is a double Purple Heart recipient that was critically wounded in Iraq over a decade ago.
Potter was one of the many who made the decision to enlist in the Army shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. Joining his grandfather, who served in the Army nearly a half century earlier, Potter enlisted in 2002 after realizing that secondary education wouldn’t get him where he wanted to be. Originally tasked as a heavy equipment operator, Potter spent six months in basic training, which led to six years spent on active duty in the Middle East.
It was in Iraq in 2004 that Potter was caught in the line of fire, the target of a rocket propelled grenade shot from atop a building while Potter was scouting an area. The RPG shooter caught Potter in his right arm, leaving him vulnerable as a group of young Iraqis bombarded Potter with more firepower, this time with hand grenades that ravaged his face.
The ordeal left Potter seeking treatment in hospitals across the nation for the next 18 months as doctors worked on saving his arm. Potter endured 17 reconstructive surgeries spanning stays in Rammstein, Germany, the Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, Washington, and Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Potter eventually landed back home at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage.
The damage was brutal. Potter had to have every bone from his shoulder down removed, replaced with a titanium rod.
“The doctors released me but I couldn’t lift my wrist up, the nerves were gone,” Potter said. “I couldn’t pick it up, and the doctor asked to try something.”
Potter said his attending doctor experimented with a contraption that would bring most function back to his arm, helping to give Potter most of what the shooter took from him, as well as a different outlook on life.
“It doesn’t matter how far you get knocked down in the dirt,” he said. “It’s whether you can overcome it.”
Potter received two Purple Heart awards, one in 2003 for a mortar attack and the other for his 2004 attack, before medically retiring from the Army in 2009. He said enjoying activities such as rodeo, hunting, fishing and snowmachining are made a little more challenging with a titanium rod for an arm, but the lessons he’s learned in his service allow him to make the best of his situation.
“It affects me, but it’s one of those things, you have to adapt and overcome,” he said.
Today, Potter will join others with stories like his at the 9/11 Tribute Rodeo in mingling with the peninsula rodeo community to share some good times.
“To go out there and know everybody is there to support the veterans, that’s the main focus,” Potter said. “It was a huge part of my grandfather, and I carry a lot of pride in that. You do something like that as a kid, the next thing you know, everyone says you’re a hero.”
Potter is now a regular on the Alaska rodeo scene, having competed in shows around the state, including a recent Labor Day event on Kodiak with Hastings. It wasn’t until Potter returned from Iraq in 2006 that his interest in the sport was piqued.
Showing up to offer his help, Potter eventually got the opportunity to try his hand at a double mugging event when a buddy of his got hurt. Since then, he has become fully immersed with the rodeo community.
“It’s been amazing,” he said. “It’s always fun, everyone gets along, we all try to help everybody. It’s my turn to give back.”
Potters said that Hastings gets most of the credit for helping him find his niche.
Hastings was Potter’s original Army recruiter, and the two ended up riding together as teammates in the 2007 Iron Dog snowmachine race. Potter, who has ridden in 11 consecutive Iron Dog events, has teamed up with Hastings to raise roughly $80,000 for various organizations like Alaska’s Healing Hearts. The two have helped Alaska’s Healing Hearts serve military veterans by organizing recreational retreats and activities around Southcentral Alaska.
The 9/11 Tribute Rodeo in Soldotna could be the biggest event of the summer for the Soldotna Equestrian Association, Hastings said. After the tribute rodeo put on two years ago in a temporary rodeo arena on JBER, this weekend’s event in Soldotna is slated to be much bigger with a permanent grounds location that is well-suited to rodeo events.
“I’m going to say at least 100 or so entries are in (for this weekend),” Hastings said. “The city is supporting this, they’re opening the city campground for free spots.”
Jones added that this weekend will offer just a glimpse into the kind of impact the sport of rodeo can have on the younger generation, and the general camaraderie that is seen on a weekly basis in the rodeo community.