‘Home is where the Army sends us’: Military families share challenges of living and thriving in Alaska

Alice Byrne was enjoying life as an Army wife, raising five children while her husband, Matthew, served at Tripler Army Medical Center near Honolulu.

In 2022, Capt. Byrne, an internist, showed Alice his new orders. He’d been assigned to Bassett Army Community Hospital at Fort Wainwright.

The family would be moving 3,000 miles north to Fairbanks.

“I left Honolulu kicking and screaming,” Alice Byrne said. “It was absolute paradise.”

Halfway through her husband’s three-year stint in Interior Alaska, Byrne, 38, said she has been surprised at the upside of the adventure of living at the Army’s northernmost outpost. Not just for her and Matthew, 37, but for the five children — Benjamin, 10, Michael, 9, Mary Kate, 7, Daniel, 5, and Gabriel, 2. Depending on timing, they will likely be joined by the end of the year with the family’s own born Alaskan — Alice is pregnant and the couple plan to name the girl Maggie.

The family recently made a 5-kilometer, cross-country ski trek. They had to carry everything they needed — food, fuel, medical supplies — on skis. It took three hours in minus 25 degree temperatures to reach their destination. The isolation is one of the big draws of such retreats.

The experience for Alice Byrne was unlike anything in Waikiki.


“It was peaceful — the stars at night, we had an amazing aurora borealis — it really is magical,” Byrne said. “Now we all have that memory for the rest of our lives,” she said.

Byrne chalks up part of the relative ease of transition to expectations of Army life and preparation for the assignment.

U.S. service members are used to moving. About 30% of the 1.4 million active-duty service members change duty stations each year, moving between about 750 installations in 80 countries, according to the Defense Department. About 51% are married and 39% have children, according to a 2023 survey by the National Institutes of Health.

The Army is the largest service branch, with 452,000 active-duty soldiers.

“Home is where the Army sends us” is an old saying for families who will move several times throughout a military career. It’s sold at wooden signs on Etsy and stitched in pillows hawked on eBay.

Brandy Ostanik-Thornton, a self-described “sourdough,” was an early convert to the state. She arrived as a toddler in 1977 when her father was assigned to Eielson Air Force Base, about 20 miles south of Fairbanks.

“My parents fell in love with it, and I then fell in love with it,” she said. “Alaska is my home by choice.”

Ostanik-Thornton, 50, has lived in other parts of the United States but Fairbanks is home. She works in the public affairs office of Fort Wainwright’s medical center.

She’s also an unofficial ambassador for Alaska when newbies arrive with trepidation and dread about their new assignment.

“For people who haven’t been here, Alaska can seem like a big chunk of ice,” Ostanik-Thornton said. “I tell them to be with other people going through the same change in their lives. Share the experience.”

When summer rolls around, the daylight hours stretch to 20 hours or more, and tourists arrive gushing about it. The payoff is easy for soldiers and spouses to see.

“The Army sent you to a place where people spend thousands of dollars to vacation,” she said. “And the Army is paying you to be here.”

John Pennell, spokesman for the 11th Airborne Division, the Army’s command for Alaska, said soldiers require Army approval to bring their families to Alaska, similar to the permission needed for families at overseas postings.

Soldiers must have “concurrent travel” orders to bring family members. Spouses and children must each complete an “exceptional family member” screening and have “command sponsorship.” About 12% of family members are identified as having special needs, according to the Army.

The process ensures those planning to come to Fort Wainwright won’t have medical conditions or require educational assistance that isn’t available at the small, distant garrison and community, Pennell said.

The Army calls the posting “remote and austere” — the description that the service gave the $4,000 incentive bonus for Fort Wainwright soldiers with dependents to ensure their families had the clothing and gear needed for the Alaska winter. That’s twice the bonus for troops going to the relatively urbanized Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, the 11th division’s main base and headquarters.

Despite the challenges, many soldiers bring their families.


The Army said along with about 7,000 soldiers, Fort Wainwright has 6,500 dependents of troops, plus 2,400 civilian employees and contractors. Another 7,800 retirees and veterans call the Fort Wainwright area their home.

For Alice Byrne, the big changes started with smaller numbers. According to the 2020 census, her hometown of New York City has 8.8 million residents. Oahu, including Honolulu, is home to 1 million people. Alaska’s count is just more than 732,000 statewide. Fairbanks tops out at just less than 32,000.

Then there’s the weather. According to the National Weather Service, the length of days in Hawaii falls between 11 hours in winter and 13.5 hours in summer. Average high temperatures in summer were in the mid-80s, while winter average low temperatures were in the low 60s.

At Fort Wainwright, the days have less than four hours of direct sunshine at the winter solstice in late December and more than 21 hours at the summer solstice in late June, according to the weather service. Travel Alaska, the state tourism agency, boasts in advertising that when factoring in ambient light before sunrise and after sunset, Fairbanks had more than 70 days in summer with 24-hour daylight.

Temperature extremes tended toward one direction: lower. Being just 150 miles from the Arctic Circle, Fort Wainwright’s average high temperature in summer struggled to stay above 70 degrees, but it dove to an average of minus 15 degrees in the depths of winter, the weather service said.

Hawaii simplified most family wardrobe decisions for Alice Byrne.

“The kids could run outside in T-shirts, swimsuits and sandals,” she said.

The realities of Fort Wainwright in winter meant even a short trip to the supermarket required significant logistical preparations.


“It takes at least an hour to get ready just to go outside,” Byrne said. “It’s minus 20. You must remind the kids that they need a base layer, a fleece layer, snow pants, an insulator, and a windproof top.”

Byrne topped off the family’s outerwear with beanies over balaclavas wrapped in scarves. The family usually travels with backup clothes.

“It may say ‘waterproof,’ but kids will find a way to get wet,” she said.

With the right planning and execution, Byrne said going outdoors in the winter isn’t something to just endure but to enjoy. Being a rare human on a ski trail or tucked away in a remote cabin will be the stuff of future family tales in decades to come.

“We’ll say, ‘remember that time in Alaska ...’ " Byrne said.

Ostanik-Thornton said she loves the winter most of all.

“There’s something about the northern lights,” she said. “Unless you have seen them in person, you don’t understand. At night, there are millions of stars. During the days, the snow twinkles on the trees. It’s a really special place.”

Ostanik-Thornton knows not every soldier will leave Alaska with warm feelings. She roots for those who stay beyond their first hitch — or longer. No matter how they feel, duty in Alaska will be something they’ll recall and recount in years ahead, unlike their stints in many bases in the Lower 48 states.

Ostanik-Thornton said, for her, there is no turning back.

“I will never leave Alaska,” she said. “This place gets in your bones.”