WASHINGTON — Alaska’s most expensive earmarked project in the federal spending bill funds a $99 million sports and fitness center at Fort Wainwright.
The annex to Fort Wainwright’s Physical Fitness Center in Fairbanks will include an indoor track and AstroTurf field that military personnel and their families can use for official training and recreational activities, like intramural sports leagues.
Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the annex was the Army’s top unfunded priority last year. She advocated for the $99 million in congressionally directed spending for the project.
As U.S. Army Alaska responds to an uptick in suicides in recent years, officials say the facility is key to well-being on the base.
“From my vantage, it’s been a massive excitement,” Garrison Commander Col. Nate Surrey said. “Just seeing the glitter in the eyes — the sparkle in the eyes of the soldiers when I show them on the board all of these things are going to be opening up in the next three years.”
Asked about the project’s $99 million cost, Murkowski emphasized her belief that the project is an important investment in quality of life but also military readiness and preparedness.
“This is not just like, a fun gym to go to where you go shoot hoops,” Murkowski said. “This is also is effectively a training center for soldiers when it’s really tough to keep in good physical shape when you just can’t go outside running.”
Surrey also pointed to costly construction prices in Interior Alaska to account for the price tag, though he said he is optimistic that the project will come in under budget.
Surrey said weather presents a unique challenge to well-being at Fort Wainwright. With temperatures reaching minus 40, it can be hard to exercise and find camaraderie on the base without the necessary indoor facilities. The annex will provide a space to complete required training and testing while also facilitating communal activities.
“The key to having strong mental health is being balanced, and that includes the social aspect, the physical fitness aspect, spiritual aspect, you know, that all comes together to provide strong mental well-being,” Surrey said. “These type of facilities we’re talking about give you the social and physical.”
“It allows you to get out of your house and be around other people, recreate and get physical fitness that we all know is wonderful for the mind,” Surrey said. “If you do not have those facilities, then it’s harder to do that.”
Lawmakers and military officials have sought to improve the quality of life for soldiers in Alaska. There have been high rates of U.S. Army Alaska suicides in recent years. In 2021, at least 11 Alaska-based soldiers died by suicide. With legislation like the Arctic Warrior Act, Alaska’s federal lawmakers have enacted policies to boost pay, provide trips home and offer other benefits. U.S. Army Alaska also launched a program in early 2022 called “Mission 100″ to provide every soldier in Alaska with an annual counseling session.
Last year, six U.S. Army Alaska soldiers died by confirmed or suspected suicide. Surrey said the drop is encouraging, but work to better soldiers’ mental health will continue.
“I think we have made massive strides in the last year and a half, but we are in by no means letting off the gas,” Surrey said.
Surrey added he thinks that the increased attention on mental health among military personnel in Alaska helped sway federal lawmakers to advocate for and fund the annex.
“When you talk about the the immense push for more quality-of-life initiatives at Fort Wainwright, that gave us even more power, because (the annex) is one glaring, obvious thing that the community was asking for, and has been asking for for over a decade,” Surrey said.
Fort Wainwright is undergoing a few other construction projects aimed at improving quality of life, including aquatic, child development and community activity centers — complete with a 16-lane bowling alley.
Surrey said the annex will be designed over the next year and a half, with the goal of breaking ground in 2024 and completing the project in 2026.