Veterans in INDYCAR: Dave Berkenfield

Throughout the 2023 INDYCAR season, we’ll be highlighting veterans who work within the racing series, whether for Chip Ganassi Racing (CGR), INDYCAR or other racing teams.

This week we’re highlighting Dave Berkenfield, who serves as team manager for CGR’s Extreme E program. Berkenfield is a retired U.S. Navy SEAL who spent 24 years in the military. A member of the American Legion Department of Indiana, Berkenfield came up with the concept of “Be the One” and has lost both a brother and fellow SEAL to suicide.

Berkenfield spoke with American Legion Social Media Manager Steven B. Brooks about educating CGR’s drivers and staff about the veteran suicide epidemic, what it’s been like to see “Be the One” grow and how he sees the initiative moving forward.

Steven B. Brooks: You’ve kind of taken on the role of education non-veterans working for Chip Ganassi Racing what it’s like to have served in the military and why “Be the One” matters. What’s it been like having that responsibility and performing that function here?

Dave Berkenfield: For me it was … coming from being in the military for a long time, over 24 years, and stepping into the civilian life and THEN stepping into this role with Chip Ganassi Racing … and figuring out a way to tell that story in a way that I was comfortable with it. Most of my life I was in the special operations community, where we frankly didn’t talk about what we did. And so, trying to sort of take a step back from that and leverage that experience – maybe not to talk about specifics, but to talk about the military at large, veteran issues – I think it’s a learning process. I’m still learning about it every day, but it’s been really valuable for me to do that: work with the team here and work with The American Legion to tell part of my story and increase about “Be the One.”

Question: Is that somewhat cathartic for you?

Berkenfield: It’s never easy. Any time I have a moment to present my story … or talk about my brother, who I lost to suicide, or my (military) teammates that I’ve lost to suicide, or just talk about combat a little bit or life in the military, frankly I have to jazz myself up a little bit and get ready for that conversation. Because it is hard. But it does resonate with me. Afterwards, I can sort of take a breath and appreciate the fact that people are interested, that people are appreciative, whether it’s random people that I meet in meetings, or The American Legion National Convention, or teammates here coming and saying they appreciate it, it helps for sure.

Question: You mention that personal connection you have to suicide. When you’ve shared with the members of (CGR) how many veterans have taken their lives, what kind of reaction do you get from them?

Berkenfield: There’s two parts to that. If you look at the military population, less than 1 percent of the nation’s population served in the military. There generally are a couple degrees of separation to the population knowing someone who is in the military. But they don’t know the story. I think more than the suicide numbers is just understanding the level of commitment that the average servicemember takes and does it willfully. I did over 20 deployments. That’s 300 days a year overseas. Most of my friends are, frankly, dead at this point. People don’t realize that, and it’s challenging.

Once you start talking about the toll that takes on veterans, whether it’s their family, or it’s the loss of friends of teammates, the toll on that body that leads to that big number (of daily veteran suicides). That is surprising. But maybe not as surprising are the details of what a veteran has gone through. So, I think they coincide. They are one and the same, and you can’t tell one story without the other.

Question: In conversations I’ve had with Alex Palou, with Marcus Ericsson and Marcus Armstrong, and with Kyffin Simpson, they said they were all shocked when they learned of those numbers. But in further conversations, and seeing them interviewed and interact with members of The American Legion, they seem like they’ve really embraced this cause. How does it feel seeing them grow into that role of sharing this message?

Berkenfield: I think that they are embracing it. That is an everyday understanding. It’s meeting veterans at the racetrack. It’s having an opportunity to hear some of those stories. It’s spending time with me or the other veterans on the team. We have a veteran community inside our own race team. Having an opportunity for our drivers to spend some time with them, as well as meeting prior generations of veterans … every one of those moments is special when you actually realize what you are getting. I think that (the CGR drivers) are all getting that education right now.

Question: It was in a meeting when you said we need to save that one life, reach that one veteran. “Be the One” was kind of your concept. What’s it like seeing that go from a concept in a room to becoming an initiative, and seeing it on IndyCars on tracks in front of millions of people? The PSAs that go on during the races. And being on your team’s cars. What’s it been like seeing “Be the One” grow?

Berkenfield: If I were going to say one word, it would be “powerful.” The start of “Be the One” really was looking at well-produced marketing deck, frankly. Try to figure out how to tell the story. Try to figure out how to create metrics to show us winning this fight. And one of them were resonating for me. The thing that was resonating was for me in the back of my mind was thinking about my brother and thinking about my teammates. Thinking about those individuals and how their families would be changed if they were still around. And it was, “Hey, we can save one life if we get one veteran to ask for help. We can get one family member to recognize that it’s OK to have this conversation with the veteran. And we can make a difference one veteran at a time. Be the one.” For me to see that now, a number of years later on the side of an IndyCar or in print media or on national television, or being discussed at The American Legion National Convention by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, for me, it’s pretty cool.

Question: How would you like to see this initiative evolve? What do you think our natural next steps are? Do you have a wish list for what it could be going forward?

Berkenfield: For sure. I think we need to understand that this is just the start. We need to recognize this. The goal of this is not a marketing campaign. The goal of this is not to increase awareness. The goal of this, very clearly, is to drive suicide numbers in the veteran community down to zero. How do we do that? How do we leverage this energy, how do we leverage this new-found awareness, into solutions? I think a lot of those solutions are going to have to be home grown. They’re going to be ideas that are generated in American Legion posts in middle America. They’re going to be ideas that the veteran community at large comes up with. I think if we have the answer to what drives great people to suicide, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. And it’s not one mind that’s going to fix this. It’s the conglomerate of great minds that are going to come together, and we’re going to start winning this battle.

I think for me, my next steps are to continue to gravitate to and grab the people that I trust and pull them into this circle, and try to continue to build awareness, whether it’s my teammates in the veteran community (or) business leaders that are interested in supporting it. There’s a lot individually that we can do. We have a road map.