AD Main Menu

JBER families gather for picnic as deployment looms

Tegan Hanlon

For the soldiers at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, deployments didn't stop when the United States announced it would withdraw forces from Afghanistan.

About 250 soldiers from the 2nd Engineer Brigade will travel overseas in the next week or so, tasked with clearing the roadways of explosives. On Thursday, the friends and families of about 90 soldiers with the 23rd Engineer Company gathered at a park for a day of barbecuing, softball and what is called, with typical military humor, "mandated fun."

But among all of the scheduled activities and pre-made hot dogs, people were preoccupied with the impending nine-month separation.

"My thought process is just stay busy," said Alissa Dodson, a 22-year-old mother of three girls, ages 1, 2 and 6. She's a combat engineer's wife and a part-time employee at a local behavioral health center.

Dodson stood behind a stroller at the park with an opened notebook, recording the names of people who bought the red T-shirts that she had printed with the phrase "Keep Calm and Love a Soldier." She'll use the proceeds to fund a party when the soldiers return.

As the leader of the company's Family Readiness Group, Dodson organizes events for the soldiers' families and phone chains to pass down updates from overseas. "I just feel like I gained a support system," she said.

Her husband has already deployed twice, though not since the two married in 2011. At the picnic, he wore a dog tag engraved with the day he married his wife while entertaining the oldest daughters in a nearby bounce house. "4-25-11 I love you."

The Dodsons are just two of the more than 10,000 active-duty military personnel who live in Anchorage along with nearly 20,000 dependents, according to the state's most recent population figures.

Military spouses are a tight-knit community, said Tracy Disston, 23. Her husband, a medic, will deploy in a few days. She will stay in the city and raise their 5-year-old son and 16-month-old daughter.

"I think I have only one friend here who's not a military wife, but her husband's a mine worker, so she gets it," she said. She sat at a picnic table with a group of soldiers, babies and spouses.

Her husband deployed back in 2009. He left for a year. They used Skype, sent emails, relied on Facebook and talked over the phone. In Afghanistan, her husband operated 121/2 hours ahead of his family.

"It was tough," she said. "You just have to learn to communicate. I pretty much converted to his time."

Gauge Hunter stood by a picnic table in the shade with a Starbucks cup in hand.

Hunter is 23 and a "gunner" trained to shoot a firearm from a military vehicle's top hatch. This is his first deployment, but the company's third since 2010.

Hunter and his wife said they've learned the ways of the long-distance relationship.

"We know we can do it," said Allison Hunter, 24. "We're just going to take it day by day and see how it goes."

The two met in Michigan, were best friends for three years and began dating soon after he left for training. When she came to visit him in Anchorage in 2013, he proposed at the airport.

"There's no one else I want to be with," she said.

Hunter traveled north in February, moved onto base and started working at the Sylvan Learning Center. She wore a heart-shaped necklace. On one side, there was a photograph of the couple on their wedding day. On the other: "I will always come back home to you. I love you! -- Gauge."

"To picture my life without him? That's not even possible," she said. "So you just take what the Army throws at you and you deal with it."

Reach Tegan Hanlon at or 257-4589.