The Army National Guard has announced the start of a three-year pilot program that gives waivers to Alaska Natives who might be trying to join the Guard but face barriers to qualification. Some of these potential recruits have the very skills the military is looking for.
Not only is the National Guard making it easier for Alaska Natives to join up, it's seeking them out. And that's because of soldiers like Spc. David Smart.
"My grandfather would take me out to the Bay, and we would go set a net for whitefish," Smart said.
Smart, 28, who grew up in Hooper Bay, is a third-generation serviceman. His grandfather inspired him to join the military.
"Going through the house, came across his discharge papers and his medals," he said.
Smart says he's lucky to have this job.
"Pretty hard to get a job in the village, because there's only so many places to work," Smart said.
Smart is one of a relatively small number of Alaska Natives to get into the Guard recently, but that might change. The new program, among other things, relaxes requirements for the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, a general knowledge test that, the Guard admits, favors native English speakers.
The Guard is going to make it easier to join, and what it wants in return is something many Alaska Natives already possess.
"Somebody that grows up in rural Alaska lives the weather, they don't watch it on The Weather Channel," said Bob Doehl from the state's Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. Doehl says that not only do Alaska Natives make better soldiers in the Arctic, practicing subsistence makes them better soldiers in general.
"Studies found that those from rural locations who are active outdoors are better able to spot patterns and changes in patterns," Doehl said.
Doehl says this increased awareness can make the difference between life or death. He asks why the military would spend years training people when it's already taken care of, which is something that Smart agrees with.
"Give somebody fish, you feed them a day. Teach 'em how to fish, you feed 'em for life," Smart said.
Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, traveling with Doehl to Bethel to spread the news about the recruitment thrust, says that in the face of a troubling fiscal situation, he still supports increased enlistment.
"It comes at a difficult time because the state does not have financial resources to significantly support such an effort," Mallott said.
Mallott says he remembers when the military was a major leadership avenue for Western Alaska, and he wants to get back to that place.
"As a young man, having grown up in Southeast Alaska and traveled the state, the National Guard was once a major presence in rural Alaska, and it was a point of inspiration," Mallott said.
Mallott echoes a thought frequently heard in many of the state's rural locations, and throughout much of Indian Country in the Lower 48. Now the effort is underway to rebuild that force.